Liberals and New Democrats voted in favour, while most Conservatives and Bloc Québécois members opposed.
Proponents claimed that the hybrid format would help MPs maintain a healthier work-life balance.
The Bloc’s opposition focused on the strain that the hybrid format placed on Parliamentary interpreters.
Conservatives argued that the Liberals had rushed what should have been non-partisan reforms without ensuring the opposition’s support.
The Globe and Mail’s Andrew Coyne made the strongest case I’ve read against the plan based on his concerns about government accountability in a liberal democracy:
“No one who has sat in the gallery of the House of Commons, however jaded about politics they may have become, can fail to be moved by the sight of those 338 MPs arrayed below them, from every corner of this absurdly distended country, of all heritages, a civics-class cliché come gloriously to life.
That presence has huge symbolic power, not only for the onlookers but the participants. Not only does it project, it solemnifies. It signals something of importance is going on.”
No one considered the effect of the reforms on foreign policy.
One the most significant takeaways from my book on the differences between the Harper government’s approach to world affairs between 2006-11 and 2011-15 was the impact of minority parliaments on high-level diplomacy.
Between 2006 and 2011, Conservative ministers were all but forbidden to travel extensively to ensure that they never missed a vote in the House.
These restrictions hindered their effectiveness and compromised our national interests.
In that context, the Trudeau government might have separated its effort to enshrine hybridity into two bills.
The first, which would have likely received all-party support, would have made the Covid-era voting app permanent, allowing MPs to vote on legislation from anywhere in the world.
A second bill could have dealt with the rules around participation in Parliamentary debates and committee business.
In the latter case, while I don’t disagree with Coyne’s point on symbolism and solemnity, I also sympathize with MPs from Northern British Columbia or the Yukon whose commute to Ottawa can take up to 20 hours.
And the pandemic should have taught us all the importance of staying (and/or working from) home when you’re sick.
As for Coyne’s argument that hybridity makes it easier for Cabinet ministers to avoid public accountability, recall then-Conservative MP Paul Callandra’s wretched performance during Question Period in 2014.
Following direct orders from the Prime Minister’s Office, Callandra – not even a member of Cabinet himself – “responded” to every question posed by the Leader of the Opposition Tom Mulcair about the Harper government’s Iraq policy with the exact same irrelevant criticism of the NDP’s position on Israel.
Governments can avoid accountability with or without a hybrid Parliament.
So, what can be done?
It would be nice to see select Parliamentary sessions held outside of Ottawa. (If the Supreme Court can do it…)
I suspect that local MPs would develop greater empathy on issues like work-life balance if they themselves commuted, and making Parliament accessible to Canadians across the country would increase the relevance of the federal government to their lives.
Good-faith protocols to govern Cabinet Ministers’ absences from the House while it is sitting would also be helpful.
Surely, our foreign minister should be able to attend the occasional Question Period via Zoom if there is a crisis in another part of the world.
Nor should our trade minister have to return to Ottawa in the middle of a negotiation when they could appear before a House committee online.
In sum, maintaining the voting app was a no-brainer, but the rushed broader decision to make hybrid Parliaments permanent was a missed opportunity for serious reform.
On anything Parliament-related, it’s always a good idea to check out what Alex Marland and Philippe Lagassé are thinking.
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