If an MP heckles in a virtual House of Commons, does it make a sound?

If an MP heckles in a virtual House of Commons, does it make a sound?

OTTAWA — Conservative MP Cathy McLeod tried gamely Wednesday to adhere to a long-standing parliamentary tradition, heckling her rivals across the aisle in the House of Commons for an answer that wasn’t up to snuff.

But her target — Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal Crown-Indigenous Relations minister — wasn’t there in person to catch it, instead engaging in the proceedings via the internet as the debut session of a COVID-19 era Commons got underway.

McLeod’s heckle echoed around the airy ceilings of the West Block chamber, while Bennett’s face simply disappeared off the screen, no chance for her to rebut or even potentially hear what had just happened.

In a hybrid House of Commons, many things just won’t be the same as a regular day of Parliament.

Wednesday marked the beginning of the latest effort to ensure some measure of government accountability during the COVID-19 pandemic, while respecting physical distancing guidelines.

A COVID-19 committee, made up of all MPs, will meet four times a week until June 18, and MPs will have a choice to be there in person or log-in remotely.

On Wednesday, around four dozen were present in the chamber while at one point as many as 171 were signed-in from afar, according to Speaker Antony Rota’s office.

“Ok, let’s make history,” he said before he formally kicked off the roughly two-hour session that marked the first time Canadian MPs have gathered in a such a fashion.

The idea behind the hybrid set up is to ensure MPs from all areas of the country are represented without them having to travel to Ottawa, exposing themselves, their families and others to possible COVID-19 infection, and keeping the number of people in the Commons chamber down for the same reason.

Not all of those logged-in were actually in their ridings. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was among the first cabinet ministers to field questions from outside the chamber. Though he represents a Vancouver riding, he was actually in his Ottawa office a few blocks away.

From their kitchens and offices and living rooms, many MPs appearing remotely wore headsets, looking and sounding more like managers on the sidelines of a football game than players on the field.

Bennett’s appearance from the comfort of a well-appointed sitting room gave her responses the air of a fireside chat, as opposed to the fiery political debate that’s a hallmark of the normal House of Commons. She’d been fielding questions on a deal with the Wet’suwet’en nation in B.C. that the government hopes will eventually allow for the construction of a pipeline.

That Bennett was discussing the subject at all reflected another element now part of the meetings: MPs can ask about subjects other than the pandemic.

Wednesday was dominated by COVID-19, with a focus on the crisis in long-term care homes, the overarching cost of the federal government’s COVID-19 response and issues with various programs.

But MPs also pressed the government on environmental concerns, rules for pilots, Canada-China relations and a smattering of other subjects.

But it’s still not the regular return of Parliament.

Parliament first adjourned back in mid-March just as the country was shutting down to slow the pandemic.

It has sat to pass emergency aid legislation, and in exchange for supporting those bills opposition MPs won the right to return more regularly to their obligation of holding the government to account.

The special COVID-19 committee was struck, initially sitting three times a week, twice virtually and once in person.

Parliament had been set to resume normally on Monday. The Liberals instead sought to keep the COVID-19 committee going. They suggested the hybrid approach in a motion that passed Tuesday over the objections of the Bloc Quebecois and Conservatives, but with the support of the NDP, who had demanded Liberal action on sick pay in exchange.

The committee meets two hours a day, Monday through Thursday. MPs have up to five minutes each to question ministers, as opposed to the 30 seconds they get during a regular question period, but other powers have fallen by the wayside.

They can’t put forward private members’ bills, leaving little legislative chance of advancing causes that matter to people in their riding.

They can’t ask written “order paper” questions, a system that allows for exceptionally detailed responses from government on a wide-range of subjects.

Initially, they’d also been restricted to only asking about COVID-19, but the last round of negotiations put an end to that limitation.

But even when it comes to COVID-19, many House of Commons committees aren’t meeting.

The Tories have cited the defence committee as one. Given the role the Forces are playing in the COVID-19 response, there is now limited opportunity for parliamentary oversight of that work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been pressed repeatedly by as to why he didn’t want the minority Parliament to return to normal.

He has cited the challenge of figuring out virtual voting on future legislation as a reason the COVID-19 committee is the stand-in for now.

Wednesday’s meeting felt a bit more like a drive-in.

Two massive screens were suspended next to the Speaker’s chair, MPs beaming themselves in from their homes and offices while those in the chamber watched.

Trudeau, who entered masked, left after going a few rounds with party leaders, including the Bloc Quebecois’ Yves-Francois Blanchet.

While Blanchet had wanted Parliament to return, he hadn’t been as revved up about it as the Conservatives. His sartorial choice Wednesday spoke to the blended nature of the proceedings. Up top, a suit jacket and tie, as required. But below? Jeans.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, clad in his usual blue suit, was marking the third anniversary of his election as leader of the party as the historic meeting began.

Scheer had been adamant that Parliament must resume, thundering on earlier this week about the hallowed responsibilities of government.

After pressing Trudeau extensively, he briefly left the chamber. He returned, took his seat, and briefly engaged in some other business that’s usual in the Commons: using the time to check Facebook.

The novelty of the new approach did wear off quickly, MPs pivoting from watching the screens in fascination to scrolling through phones or reading papers.

Debate wrapped up with a warm round of applause for the approximately 55 House of Commons staff assisting in the effort of spooling up the new system.

The MPs in Ottawa exchanged the political hot air they’d been blowing inside for a scorcher of a day in Ottawa, heading down the Hill carrying a provided bagged lunch to eat later.

The MPs back at home, one presumes, just went into their kitchens.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Federal Politics

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

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

Leader of the Opposition Erin O’Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons Thursday October 22, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
O’Toole tells Alberta UCP AGM Liberals were ‘late and confused’ on COVID response

He says Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has taken charge and not waited to make things happen

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives for an announcement at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Inquiry into oil and gas foes to deliver report next year: Kenney

A lawsuit filed by environmental law firm Ecojustice argues the inquiry is politically motivated

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

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’

Most Read