Vir­tual par­lia­ment ready, if needed

Op­po­si­tion not yet on board for Zoom Com­mons

Calgary Herald - - CANADA - RYAN TUMILTY

OT­TAWA • House of Com­mons Speaker An­thony Rota told a com­mit­tee Tues­day the tech­nol­ogy is in place to re­sume Par­lia­ment vir­tu­ally, in­clud­ing with re­mote voting.

But it will be up to MPS to de­cide if they’re com­fort­able, and op­po­si­tion MPS said they’re not yet con­vinced.

The Lib­er­als, with sup­port from the NDP and Greens, voted last month to ef­fec­tively sus­pend Par­lia­ment un­til Sept. 21. Part of their ar­gu­ment for sus­pend­ing full par­lia­men­tary sit­tings is that only those phys­i­cally in the cham­ber would be able to vote on bills and mo­tions.

Since mid-march MPS have only been in the cham­ber in lim­ited num­bers to pre­vent the spread of COVID-19. The House con­tin­ues to sit as a spe­cial com­mit­tee on the pan­demic, with mem­bers tak­ing part both in the House of Com­mons and vir­tu­ally through a video con­fer­ence.

But that com­mit­tee does not al­low for voting, prevent­ing a full re­turn of Par­lia­ment that could in­clude op­po­si­tion day mo­tions, pri­vate mem­ber’s bills and even con­fi­dence votes.

Tes­ti­fy­ing Tues­day at the Com­mons’ pro­ce­dure and house af­fairs com­mit­tee study­ing the is­sue, Rota said House of Com­mons staff have the tools in place to al­low Par­lia­ment to go for­ward and hold votes.

“The tech­nol­ogy is in place. It has been tested in other places,” he said. “It re­ally comes down to the com­fort level that in­di­vid­u­als are will­ing to live with.”

The House of Com­mons has been us­ing an up­graded ver­sion of the Zoom plat­form to con­duct com­mit­tee meet­ings through video con­fer­ence, which has in­cor­po­rated trans­la­tion and al­lows MPS to par­tic­i­pate from all across the coun­try.

Al­most all votes MPS cast in the House are done pub­licly, with MPS ei­ther voic­ing their opin­ion or stand­ing in the cham­ber as their name is called to in­di­cate their vote. Rota said he be­lieves those could con­tinue vir­tu­ally.

Par­lia­ment is gov­erned by what are called the stand­ing or­ders, rules on pro­ce­dure and voting, that spell out how the Com­mons daily func­tions are struc­tured.

Rota said House staff have re­viewed those stand­ing or­ders and found all of the ones that would have to change to al­low for re­mote voting. He said MPS could ei­ther vote to change all of them or cre­ate a new one al­low­ing the Speaker to ig­nore cer­tain rules dur­ing an emer­gency like this one.

The com­mit­tee has been tasked to come up with changes and rec­om­mend a way for­ward for a vir­tual Par­lia­ment be­fore the end of this month. Cur­rently, the spe­cial COVID-19 com­mit­tee is set to sit for a few more weeks and then re­turn for four sit­tings over the sum­mer.

Rota said staff have pre­pared for a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios and said it will be up to MPS to de­cide what hap­pens next.

“Staff have worked on many dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions and pos­si­bil­i­ties. Ul­ti­mately it comes down to what the House is com­fort­able with,” he said.

Con­ser­va­tive MP John Nater said even if the tech­nol­ogy makes it pos­si­ble, he’s not con­vinced MPS should be so ea­ger to move to a vir­tual Par­lia­ment. “When we are look­ing at the path for­ward for Par­lia­ment, we shouldn’t be think­ing of the House of Com­mons as a tech­no­log­i­cal is­sue look­ing to be solved. Tech­nol­ogy is only one part of the con­sid­er­a­tion,” he said.

He said even if a vir­tual Par­lia­ment were able to re­store op­po­si­tion days and pri­vate mem­bers’ bills, it’s not a full re­place­ment.

“It re­ally de­creases the abil­ity to have a cut and thrust, the back and forth of a real mean­ing­ful de­bate in the House of Com­mons,” he said. “We don’t want the Lib­er­als to use this pan­demic as an ex­cuse to limit their ac­count­abil­ity long-term.”

NDP MP Rachel Blaney said any move for­ward on this has to be done cau­tiously, giv­ing time to ad­dress prob­lems as they come up.

“It is im­por­tant that we have an in­cre­men­tal ap­proach to all of the changes we make to move into a vir­tual Par­lia­ment, so that all rec­og­nized par­ties have an op­por­tu­nity to share con­cerns,” she said. “Ev­ery step we take we should be re­flect­ing on what works and what doesn’t work.”

WE DON’T WANT THE LIB­ER­ALS TO USE THIS ... AS AN EX­CUSE TO LIMIT THEIR AC­COUNT­ABIL­ITY.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

House of Com­mons Speaker An­thony Rota takes part in a vir­tual ses­sion of Par­lia­ment in April.

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