The recent spasm of concern over how Parliament is or isn’t functioning during this pandemic at least demonstrates that there is still some feeling for an institution that is otherwise often neglected.
Perhaps, in the spirit of these times, that energy can be harnessed to renew the House of Commons — to build it back better, whenever it comes time to construct the post-COVID world.
The basic dispute of this past week seems to come down to contrasting visions of how the House of Commons should conduct its affairs at a time when a highly contagious and deadly disease is circulating.
After two months of evolving arrangements — including brief emergency sessions of the House, virtual committee meetings and a special COVID-19 committee — the Conservatives believe that the House should resume its normal, in-person business of debates and question period. According to a motion presented by the Conservatives, that would happen with a reduced number of MPs — approximately 50 — participating to limit the risk of transmitting COVID-19.
The Liberal plan (which will be in place until June 18) suspends the normal business of the main chamber while providing for four meetings each week of a special committee of the whole — but with all MPs able to participate, either in person or remotely via large video screens now installed in the House.
Each option has its benefits and drawbacks.
Two very different approaches to Parliament
The Conservative proposal emphasizes the resumption of normal debates, opposition days and private members’ business, but without arrangements to allow for remote participation it would necessarily exclude the vast majority of MPs from speaking to and voting on any bill or motion that came before the House.
As Green MP Jenica Atwin argued this week, MPs travelling to and from Ottawa could become vectors for transmission and could face requests to self-isolate after returning to their home provinces.
The Liberal approach allows MPs to question ministers daily and permits all or most of the MPs to participate, but it sets aside significant portions of the typical proceedings.
The current arrangement also doesn’t allow opposition MPs to table written questions with the government as often. Written questions are sometimes used to tease out more detailed information from federal departments, although committees can still pass motions demanding records and documents.
After June 18, when the House normally adjourns for the summer, MPs are scheduled to meet twice in July and twice in August.
No consensus on voting
In the meantime, nine committees of the House are set up to meet virtually, including the finance and health committees.
A full “hybrid” House that allows for all normal business and permits all MPs to fully participate and vote either in-person or remotely would seem to be the natural compromise point between the Conservative and Liberal proposals. Scheer said last week that the Conservatives were open to proposals for implementing a hybrid arrangement, but the parties apparently have not agreed on a method for allowing MPs to vote from outside the House.
“Conservatives believe that Members of Parliament must stand and be accountable for their votes in the House of Commons,” a Conservative spokesperson said this week.
It is at least unfortunate that this wasn’t all sorted out much more expeditiously.
Beyond the fiercely contested particulars of this dispute — Conservatives have accused the Liberals of “shutting down” Parliament — the basic focus on maintaining parliamentary accountability is healthy. It also offers an opening to reflect on the current state and future of Canadian democracy’s bedrock institution.
Andrew Scheer’s contention this week that Parliament should be considered an “essential service” is at least a significant shift from where the Conservative Party was a decade ago, when Stephen Harper had Parliament prorogued for the first two months of 2010. In that case, all parliamentary business was suspended — resulting in nationwide protests and a notable drop in Harper’s approval rating.
Let’s talk about parliamentary reform
An MP’s interest in parliamentary accountability is almost always inversely proportional to their proximity to power. But in the post-Harper era, Conservatives have neither reckoned with their former leader’s record in this regard, nor rediscovered an interest in parliamentary reform. Scheer’s election platform avoided the topic and the issue has been absent from the current Conservative leadership race.
Do Conservatives have thoughts about strengthening the roles and independence of MPs? Would they further empower legislative committees? How would they deal with omnibus bills or prorogation? Do they have any ideas about improving question period?
Looking beyond the floor of the House of Commons, are Conservatives at all interested in fixing the access to information system?
These are not the sorts of questions that decide elections. But commitments to reform can tell voters something about a party’s values and how it would govern.
In 2006, for instance, Harper’s Conservatives came to office on a platform that included a number of promises to improve Parliament and democratic accountability. Some of those promises were implemented. Nearly a decade later, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals also proposed a suite of reforms, largely in response to criticism of how Harper had treated Parliament.
The Liberal record on parliamentary reform is mixed, so far. The Senate has been dramatically reoriented, the independence of the parliamentary budget officer has been reinforced and there is a new (though untested) procedure for dealing with prorogation. The Liberal backbench has also shown interesting signs of life; Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Liberal MP, has emerged as the model of an independently minded partisan.
But a larger plan for House reform fell apart, omnibus budget bills have been only slightly curtailed, the membership of parliamentary committees is still determined by party whips and the access to information system is still broken.
The Liberals might tell themselves that their intentions are better than their predecessors — but they might hope to leave behind a system that depends as little as possible on a government’s goodwill.
Liberals also ought to think about whether the shortcomings of their recent approach to Parliament could one day be used to excuse even bigger compromises in the future. If, for instance, the Liberals are unwilling to provide a fiscal update in the next few weeks, how much easier will it be for some future government to get away with withholding spending information?
‘Normal’ doesn’t mean ‘good’
But with all this attention being paid now to how Parliament does business, we should remember that the way Parliament functioned before the pandemic was hardly ideal. It would be easier to miss the normal way of doing things if the normal way of doing things was less reliably dispiriting.
That might not be something for the opposition or the prime minister to fix. Instead, it might be a challenge better suited to some of the backbenchers who toil in Parliament’s less glamorous corners.
Last June, Liberal MP Frank Baylis — who did not seek re-election — tabled a long motion that would have made numerous changes to Parliament. He did so after consulting with MPs in all parties (some of whom had contributed to a collection of essays on parliamentary reform in 2017).
It was too late in the life of the last Parliament for that motion to go anywhere, but it could be revived by another MP now.
For now, parliamentarians have to do the best they can under the circumstances. But once our current crisis is behind us, it might be a good time for MPs to think about doing better.