In the midst of a deadly global pandemic — the likes of which almost no one alive today has ever experienced — Canada’s federal parties found themselves arguing over the weekend about whether the Parliament of Canada, the foundational institution of our democracy, is capable of organizing a video conference.
In fairness, there were some large principles involved. As large as those principles are, however, they risked getting lost in a very small debate.
However MPs proceed from here, and whatever technological glitches they face, voters have a right to hope they can now rise to meet this remarkable moment.
In light of the current health risk posed by public gatherings, the House of Commons has been mostly adjourned since March 13. A few dozen MPs returned for several hours on March 24 and then again on April 11 to pass emergency legislation. Otherwise, the main chamber has been quiet.
But the parties recently started talking about holding more regular sittings. Perhaps uncomfortable with the amount of airtime government ministers were getting, the Conservatives seemed the ones most eager to resume something resembling the House’s normal schedule.
The weekend seems to have ended with two competing proposals.
The Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, New Democrats and Greens agreed to proceed with one in-person sitting each week and two “virtual” sittings to be conducted through videoconferencing.
The Conservatives wanted three in-person sittings each week.
The Liberals, Bloc, NDP and Greens argued that every in-person meeting of MPs in Ottawa constitutes a health risk. Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez noted on Monday that about 50 members of the parliamentary staff are required to attend whenever the House is in session.
The Conservatives suggested the risk could be mitigated and wanted a study of virtual sittings completed before any extraordinary measures are implemented. Though several committees of the House already meet via video and teleconference, Conservatives have complaints about how smoothly those meetings tend to run.
Who gets left out?
Supporters of the Liberal proposal argued that holding in-person meetings with a few dozen MPs necessarily puts at a disadvantage the other 300 MPs not in attendance. Green MP Paul Manly also noted on Monday that some provincial governments have been asking those who travel out of province to self-isolate for two weeks upon their return — which would impose a heavy burden on them every time they attend a Commons session.
Conservatives argued that virtual sittings could be unfair to MPs who live in rural areas and don’t have broadband Internet connections at home.
The context of this argument may be new; the basic issue isn’t. MPs have seldom agreed in recent years on how the House of Commons should conduct its business. The past decade has seen unending fights over how debate time should be allotted, how legislation should be studied and what reforms, if any, should be made to the parliamentary process.
The Commons has an image problem
There is much to be said for disagreement, of course. The Westminster system of parliamentary democracy is built on the idea of government and opposition being set against each other. But MPs’ inability to agree on process during no less than a pandemic is a sign of how the institution has become easier to dismiss as just a forum for squabbling.
Given the paeans to parliamentary democracy we’ve all heard in recent days, you’d be forgiven for not realizing that the House of Commons typically sits for fewer than 130 days each year. In 2018 —a normal, non-pandemic year — the House took off two weeks in March and another two weeks in April.
But it would be easier to wish Parliament was in session more often if it spent more time doing obviously inspiring work when it was sitting.
Rarely does any Canadian come away from watching a session of question period with a feeling of pride in their democracy. If ever that daily exchange of condemnation served as a forum for useful debate or information, these days it’s mostly a backdrop for shouty video clips that MPs and parties can push out through their own Twitter and Facebook channels.
Partisanship comes roaring back
Maybe no one likes the idea of Parliament being sidelined or avoided, but does anyone really miss the daily spectacle when it’s not being staged?
Then again, two things can be true at once: that question period is desultory and that some question period is still better than none at all.
The normal excesses of partisanship may have been curtailed over the last six weeks, but the familiar rumble has picked up in recent days.
Over the weekend, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre posted satellite images of the official residence at Harrington Lake to suggest that Justin Trudeau had secretly constructed a mansion on the property and also alleged that the prime minister was forcing reporters to gather in unhealthy conditions for his daily news conferences. Then there was some dispute over whether Trudeau was disingenuous when he claimed that all 338 MPs might be forced by the Conservatives to return to Parliament this week.
When Parliament does resume, maybe MPs on all sides can take the opportunity to show Canadians just how valuable and admirable the institution can be.
In that respect, the 45 minutes of question period on Monday afternoon were a minor revelation.
The Commons when it works
For one thing, it did not sound like a barnyard. There was neither hooting nor hollering. With just a smattering of MPs in attendance, it apparently was understood that the usual clapping and heckling would seem even more ridiculous than it already does.
Even better, there were actual questions, met with actual answers.
Andrew Scheer, as leader of the Official Opposition, posed relatively straightforward queries about the procurement of ventilators, the early warnings of an outbreak in China and the management of emergency supplies. And the prime minister came prepared to actually offer specific information in response, generally avoiding the platitudes and airy assurances that have defined the Trudeau government’s approach to question period over the last five years.
It wasn’t a perfect tribute to the Socratic method but it was a decent display of parliamentary accountability. Even if some of Monday’s sobriety was brought on by the horror in Nova Scotia, it showed that MPs are collectively capable of some seriousness.
What’s more, the government and the Official Opposition then agreed to put their differences to a vote. Shortly after question period, the Liberal plan for future sittings was adopted by a vote of 22 to 15.
How the parties got to that new arrangement was not particularly edifying. But the existence of our democratic institutions is a basic good. And there is still a chance now for MPs and ministers to show the best of themselves — as this country’s doctors, nurses, public servants and citizens have done every day for the past six weeks.