Canada’s Parliament has resumed regular sittings, though not the way the Conservatives would prefer. MPs will gather in person each Wednesday and hold virtual meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The Liberal motion to meet in person only on Wednesdays passed by a 22-15 vote on April 20. The contrary Conservative proposal to meet in person all three days was voted down by the same margin.
Despite this split along party lines, pandemic responses have been less polarized in Canada than the United States, says Laura Stephenson, political science professor at the University of Western Ontario.
“All of the parties are on the same page at this point and time in terms of how important it is that we fight this pandemic—that it is real, is it overblown [or] is it not, that kind of thing,” Stephenson says.
One exception to this consensus came last month when the minority Liberal government drafted a bill to give themselves unilateral authority to raise taxes through the end of 2021. The attempt was “quickly dialled back—pretty quickly actually, and appropriately,” Stephenson says.
“This is important because in times of crisis you often hear someone has to fix this quick, someone has to do something. And you don’t want to have a blind desire for successful recovery to stop democratic processes. You don’t want to see a government overreach.”
In the negotiation over Parliament’s return, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that with social distancing and a reduced number of MPs, there was no reason there couldn’t be in-person sittings on all three days.
During a press conference on April 20, Scheer said meeting in person would be more responsible.
“Right here on Parliament Hill, construction workers are continuing to renovate Centre Block, a project that is expected to take at least 10 years,” he said. “If they can safely renovate the building that houses our Parliament then surely we can do our duty to uphold the bedrock of our democracy.”
Trudeau said that while he believes it’s important to uphold the principles of accountability and democracy, “it really matters that we do so responsibly” and observe public health directives.
The Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois argued that any time an in-person sitting takes place it poses a health risk. Parliamentary staff would also have to be in attendance during in-person sittings.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said virtual Parliament meetings make more sense because they allow MPs from all across the country to participate.
Melanee Thomas, political science professor at the University of Calgary, believes that a business-as-usual sitting of Parliament would send the wrong message to the public.
“We could have parliamentarians violating the rules that everyone else has to follow,” she says. “People will say, ‘I’m a sucker for following these rules because they don’t have to.’ So it’s important to see those rules mirrored by politicians very carefully.”
Thomas says it was “not good” for the families of the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition to travel home for Easter, given the example it set. She believes requiring MPs to be in the capital presents similar problems.
“It’s going to be risky, and for many parliamentarians this is going to be commercial air travel with multiple stops in multiple places—everything that public health officials are telling us not to do.”
Then again, MPs currently present for Parliament haven’t gone far. Singh told the National Post, “In Parliament, we are limited to a small number and that is often people who are close to Ottawa.”
The successful motion means that MPs will have two hours and 15 minutes each Wednesday to question cabinet ministers, plus another session to debate legislation. Virtual sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays will allow 90 minutes for questions each day.
Scheer said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “keeps arguing that he only needs to show up in the House and answer questions” one day a week, yet he has appeared almost daily to speak to the media during the pandemic, as have his ministers.
“Mr. Trudeau needs to explain why he has replaced Parliament with press conferences,” he said.
Thomas says that while Trudeau “is giving a really good image of calm competent leadership, at least sometimes,” she understands why the Conservatives would want their own opportunities for air time.
“If we’re not in session with daily question periods, we don’t already have those opportunities, which are pretty minimal for the Opposition,” she says.
Former Tory senator Hugh Segal, now chair of the External Advisory Board of Queen’s University, believes Conservative MPs can be best served right now by “hearing from their ridings … [while] working to shape Opposition policy priorities for recovery, and improvement where necessary in public health infrastructure.”
“In some provinces, were MPs to depart for Ottawa they would have to isolate for 14 days before re-entering their province,” he said, noting that the U.K. is also considering a “digital virtual parliamentary framework.”