Committee recommends move to virtual sittings for all Commons business, votes

Committee recommends move to virtual sittings for all Commons business, votes

OTTAWA — An all-party committee is recommending the House of Commons hold additional virtual sittings to conduct all its regular business — including voting — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recommendation was included in a majority report released Friday by the procedure and House affairs committee, which has been studying how to move toward a fully virtual Parliament.

But while the governing Liberals and most opposition parties supported the move to more virtual proceedings, the Conservatives issued a dissenting report that renewed their call for more in-person sittings of the Commons.

The Commons has been adjourned since mid-March, except for several single-day special sittings to pass emergency aid legislation, as part of the countrywide effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

However, since late last month MPs have been meeting by videoconference twice a week and a small number have gathered in person once a week in modified Commons proceedings devoted strictly to the COVID-19 crisis.

Given the success of those online proceedings, the majority committee report says the Commons should move towards additional virtual sittings for all its regular business.

Moreover, it says the Commons should set up a secure electronic voting system as soon as possible, rather than the usual practice of allowing only MPs who are physically present in the chamber to vote on motions and legislation.

Electronic voting would ”guarantee the right of members to vote safely in the event of a pandemic or any other exceptional circumstances threatening their safety and/or that of their families and communities,” the report says.

However, the Conservative minority report recommends that the Commons adopt a “hybrid model,” whereby some MPs would be in the chamber while those unable to be present due to pandemic-related issues could still participate via videoconference “in the House’s constitutional duty of holding the government to account.”

Still, the Conservatives argue MPs who participate virtually should not have the same rights as those actually in the chamber.

“We strongly oppose … the use of any virtual proceedings to consider legislation, a budget or an address in reply,” the minority report says.

“The official Opposition will strongly resist any effort to exploit the pandemic as a cover to implement a permanent virtual Parliament, with its reduced ability to hold the government accountable, gravely undermining our democracy.”

In anticipation of the committee report’s release, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer contended earlier Friday that it’s more essential than ever for the Liberal government to be held accountable for the billions it’s thrown into emergency aid programs, now that the country is beginning to embark on an economic recovery.

He said regular in-person sittings of the Commons need to resume as currently scheduled on May 25.

“We’ve always said that virtual sittings can be used to augment, to facilitate members who may not be able to come to Ottawa, but it certainly is no replacement,” Scheer said.

“(Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau should not be using a health pandemic to avoid accountability and oversight and should not be eliminating the role of the people’s representatives.”

For his part, Trudeau said virtual proceedings have worked well and allow MPs who aren’t close to Parliament Hill to have their say on the issues, as most who attend in person are from relatively nearby.

“We all agree we need to continue with a strong democracy and a functioning Parliament in a way that ensures that concerns of Canadians from every part of this country get heard,” he said.

During this week’s in-person sitting, some MPs representing ridings across the country were in attendance.

Among them, the Green party’s Paul Manly, whose riding is in B.C, several Conservatives from the Prairies and Bloc Quebecois MPs from all parts of Quebec.

The Liberal side was mostly Toronto-area cabinet ministers, but Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan from B.C., and Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos from Quebec City were there, as well as some Liberal backbenchers whose ridings are within a few hours’ drive of Ottawa.

The majority committee report includes some recommendations to deal with technical glitches that have plagued virtual proceedings, particularly those related to injuries sustained by interpreters due to poor audio quality and occasional feedback loops.

It also includes recommendations designed to deal with some of the breaches of decorum that have occurred. Among other things, it suggests that a uniform sign or screen symbolizing Parliament be set up behind each MP participating in videoconference sittings ”to avoid any form of partisanship” and maintain the privacy of MPs.

Virtual proceedings so far have given Canadians a glimpse into MPs’ homes and offices, while some MPs have taken the opportunity to display what might be considered props that are normally prohibited in the Commons.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2020.

Joan Bryden and Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19. (File photo)
432 new COVID cases sets another record Friday

Central zone holds steady at 126 active cases

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

100 Women Who Care make a donation to Sylvan Lake Food Bank and Bethany Care Centre. Photo By Megan Roth/Sylvan Lake News
100 Women Who Care donate to four Sylvan Lake groups

The Food Bank, Bethany Sylvan Lake, Community Partners and the Library all received a donation

RCMP. (Black Press File Photo)
Calgary man dies in two-vehicle collision near Sylvan Lake

A semi truck collided with a SUV just east of Hwy. 781 on Hwy 11.

Shaelynn Decock and her dog Taco, who has been missing since Aug. 26. Photo Submitted
Sylvan Lake woman looking for closure for her stolen dog

Shaelynn Decock says it has been two months since she last saw her dog Taco

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

This photo provided by Air Force Reserve shows a sky view of Hurricane Epsilon taken by Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter team over the Atlantic Ocean taken Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.   Epsilon’s maximum sustained winds have dropped slightly as it prepares to sideswipe Bermuda on a path over the Atlantic Ocean.  The National Hurricane Center says it should come close enough Thursday, Oct. 22, evening to merit a tropical storm warning for the island.  (Air Force Reserve via AP)
Hurricane Epsilon expected to remain offshore but will push waves at Atlantic Canada

Epsilon is not expected to have any real impact on land

A voter places her absentee ballot in the ballot box, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Robert F. Bukaty
American voters living in Canada increasingly being counted in presidential race

The largest number of Canadian-based American voters cast their ballots in New York and California

A composite image of three photographs shows BC NDP Leader John Horgan, left, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Sept. 25, 2020; BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, centre, in Victoria on Sept. 24, 2020; and BC Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson Pitt Meadows, B.C., on Sept. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck, Chad Hipolito
British Columbia votes in snap election called during COVID-19 pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan called the snap election one year before the fixed voting date

Nunavut's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, on Tuesday June 30, 2020. The annual report from Nunavut's representative for children and youth says "complacency and a lack of accountability" in the territory's public service means basic information about young people needing services isn’t tracked. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Nunavut’s young people ‘should be expecting more’ from government services: advocate

‘The majority of information we requested is not tracked or was not provided by departments’

Ryen Williams, 11, with a lost miniature horse at JJ Collett Oct. 23. Photo by Don Williams
UPDATE: Owners found

Father and son found him while out for a walk at JJ Collett

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

Conservative member of Parliament Michelle Rempel Garner, left to right, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen arrive to hold a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No-confidence showdown over sweeping Tory motion on government handling of pandemic

The Conservative motion is to be put to a vote Monday and has the support of both the Bloc Québécois and NDP

Most Read