Federal New Democrats say they want to see real action from the Liberal government on permanent paid sick leave and support for people with disabilities before they will support a plan to continue suspending full House of Commons sittings.
The debate over the future of Parliament has largely coalesced around the limitations and uncertainty associated with virtual House of Commons’ sittings as they butt up against demands for full parliamentary representation and accountability during the pandemic.
Over the weekend, the Liberals proposed to waive “normal” House of Commons sittings in favour of expanding the special COVID-19 committee that has acted as a sort of stand-in for the past month.
Because they hold only a minority of seats, the Liberals need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties to pass this motion.
The Conservatives are pushing for an end to the COVID-19 committee and the resumption of normal House of Commons sittings, albeit with no more than 50 MPs in the chamber at any time.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says his party is willing to support Liberals’ motion.
However, he says that support is contingent on the Liberals’ expanding the Canada Emergency Response Benefit to provide paid sick leave to all Canadians in the short term and a commitment to work with the provinces to provide permanent benefits even after the pandemic.
“So what we are suggesting in the immediate term is … that immediately the federal government modify existing programs to ensure that every Canadian has access to paid sick leave right away,” he said.
“But for a long-term proposal, we will absolutely need to work with the provincial governments, and in fact with employers as well, to develop a long-term solution so that from now and forever all Canadians will have paid sick leave.”
The Liberals’ motion proposes adding an additional day to the committee’s current schedule of one meeting a week in person, with fewer than three dozen MPs actually present, and twice a week virtually.
The Liberals are now proposing four meetings a week until June 17 with a hybrid of in-person and virtual attendance that would see a small number of MPs in the chamber and others participating via two large video screens set up on either side of the Speaker’s chair.
The motion also proposes four sittings of the House of Commons in July and August, each with a question period that would allow MPs the chance to ask cabinet ministers about issues unrelated to COVID-19 — a key issue of contention for the Conservatives in recent weeks.
Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said that while the motion unveiled by the Liberals over the weekend was an improvement over the way the special committee has been allowed to operate for the past month, it still has key limitations.
“We just still firmly believe that Parliament and the powers of Parliament — opposition days, private members’ business, motions around committees and things that we do in Parliament — should be resuming,” she told The Canadian Press.
“Although we don’t dislike what the government is now proposing and at least it’s more than one day in person, we are still very disappointed and still maintain that Parliament should be sitting…. We are going to be there for four days face to face; why can’t we have Parliament?”
Bergen told CBC News on Sunday that despite the motion’s shortcomings, the Conservatives don’t plan to block it outright.
“We won’t be trying to obstruct it or anything like that, but we will take the time that we have allotted to debate it,” she said.
“I think it’s natural and normal that the Official Opposition would want all the mechanisms available to it to hold the government to account,” said Philippe Lagassé, Barton Chair of International Affairs at Carleton University and an expert on the Westminster parliamentary system.
Lagassé said he hopes the House of Commons is able to ease into regular sittings as soon as possible because in-person meetings of the chamber lead to stronger exchanges between politicians.
“I think it’s the scope of the types of questions that you get,” Lagassé said. “It’s also the theatrics that some people will choose to downplay or believe are unnecessary at this time. They’re meant to … allow parties to ask uncomfortable questions.”
But Lagasse said the hybrid model could be in place for some time, even as the United Kingdom takes steps to phase out a similar system in its own Parliament.
“We may very well see some of these hybrid aspects becoming part of our regular functioning of Parliament, particularly given the size of our country and given the costs to bring MPs back, given health concerns.”
The key hangup for both sides of the debate appears to be around representation as the House of Commons’ administration works through the technical limitations around virtual attendance — limitations that both the Conservatives and NDP have acknowledged.
Those limitations were highlighted in a report by a Commons’ committee two weeks ago, including concerns about hacking when it comes to MP votes and procedural questions such as how to handle points of order and privilege.
“Conservatives are supportive of this hybrid committee,” Bergen said. “Where we have concerns is a hybrid model of Parliament. There’s still far too many questions that have to be answered…. If you see the book that governs us, it is a huge book. There’s a lot of rules that govern us.”
NDP House Leader Peter Julian agreed that there remain unanswered questions and concerns about virtual sittings of Parliament.
“We want to be immune from hacking,” he said. “We want to make sure the vote is clear and public…. We have to make sure that we work this out. It’s not a detail. It’s actually pretty fundamental to have a hybrid Parliament work.”
Yet the Conservatives’ proposal of resuming House of Commons sittings with no more than 50 MPs in the chamber at any time means many MPs and their constituents will not be able to have their voices heard in Parliament, he said.
“What we need to do is answer that question about virtual voting so MPs can fully participate. So where we would differ from the Conservatives is the Conservative motion does not allow for that full participation. It is full participation of a very small percentage of parliamentarians.”