Parliament soon to go virtual (but at what cost?)
Last week I was reading about two things happening soon on Parliament Hill.
The first was that the Carillion on the Peace Tower will go silent as soon as January as part of the 10-year rehabilitation of Centre Block. There has been extensive work done in the year plus that all Parliamentary business move to the West Block. In the new year the work of stripping the tower of windows, carvings etc. starts. It will all be cleaned and prepped for reinstallation by 2030.
The second item of note this week was the return of MP’s eight weeks after the September 20th election; the Speech from the Throne and the introduction of the first business of the government. Government Motion No. 1 was brought forward to bring back a hybrid Parliament. There are a lot of opinions on this motion. Looking at party lines, the Liberals will be supported by the NDP as the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois will fight to stop this motion. Numbers don’t lie and by the end of Thursday last week (November 25th) the motion passed 180 to 140. As soon as Monday November 28th, MP’s may have the option to work from home and be a parliamentarian by video.
Most will think of Question Period when they think of a MP and the work done in the House of Commons. They may think that virtual Question Period is not such a bad thing – however the move to a hybrid parliament affects so much of the business of the house.
My point towards this post is by having a hybrid parliament, there is so much more than just QP where the interaction of MPs is important to the business of the Parliament of Canada. While media portrays different parties at odds with each other, this image couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In the house chamber, off camera, there is the meeting of MPs with Ministers in the aisle in the House of Commons. MPs share concerns of residents, present specific cases that need attention by the Minister and sharing of information. During the previous hybrid parliament, MPs called or emailed Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries for the same reasons, and while there was some success the hybrid parliament missed the immediacy of the ‘meeting’ in the middle.
During the height of COVID, MPs from all parties were extremely busy, and because they were not in the House of Commons the ability to reach across the aisle was impossible and it was made more so by the government never having more than 10 members in the House and they were rarely Ministers and the Prime Minister.
There is something to be said for MPs being able to meet in person and talk. Whether it is a Commons Committee, an Inter-Parliamentary Group or Caucus Advisory Committees (which are caucus’ on specific issues such as poverty and homelessness) the in-person meetings generate lively and sometimes energetic discussions. The display of emotion and compassion in these meetings is part of the Parliamentary experience of MPs working for their constituents.
Presently these meetings taking place are held in person or virtually, but not in a hybrid format.
Members of all parties gather at receptions, events and cultural openings, the move to a hybrid setting reduces the number of MPs that will be in Ottawa at any given time. I should say that in almost all instances all Members get along with each other. These events outside of the halls of Parliament are an opportunity to talk about the issues and seek resolutions.
Any move to limit and reduce Members of Parliament time to gather among other MPs hinders the ‘soft’ and ‘personal’ parliamentary work that gets done. I know for a fact the bells of the Peace Tower will ring again; will full parliamentary activity ever return? Will the government looked at these measures they’ve had passed and decide that they like the reduced contact? For now, the hybrid parliament will end when the House rises for the summer in June next year.