Canada Parliament goes virtual amid pandemic

Every Tuesday and Thursday over the past month, 338 Canadian MPs logged into Zoom from home

OTTAWA • Canada’s Parliament has gone virtual through the pandemic, assembling MPs across six time zones and giving a rare peek at Prime Minister (PM) Justin Trudeau’s bookcase, a deer head and a stifled opposition.

Rota admonishes MPs over sounds of camera clicks ‘not to post photos on the Internet of the screen’ (source: Facebook)

Every Tuesday and Thursday over the past month, 338 Canadian MPs logged into Zoom from home to question ministers in lieu of holding a daily in-person question period.

The first sessions were marred by glitches — “Can you hear me now?” “There’s an issue with the translation.” “The minister is being cut off.” “Please unclick your mute.” “You might also hear my son, he doesn’t sound too happy, in the background.”

“This is a historic day,” Speaker Anthony Rota said when it began, while admonishing MPs over sounds of camera clicks “not to post photos on the Internet of the screen”, as per parliamentary rules.

A few others including the British and Latvian Parliaments have also gone online to limit person-to-person spreading of the Covid-19 virus.

“We cannot be vectors for the virus,” New Democrat MP Peter Julian told AFP, explaining why his party pushed for this arrangement to maintain democracy in a crisis.

“The only way to ask questions on behalf of constituents and hold government accountable without endangering the public is a virtual Parliament,” he said.

Critics such as Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher lamented that it has diminished the role of the official Opposition, while the minority Liberal government of Trudeau uses daily press briefings to discuss policy.

“It’s very difficult in these mass virtual sessions to put a minister or the PM on the spot,” Conacher said, describing the sessions as “chaotic”.

He also warned of the risk of abuse if parliamentary oversight is curtailed.

Accountability and Oversight

The only way to hold govt accountable without endangering the public is a virtual Parliament, says Julian (source: Facebook)

The official Opposition Tories had from the start objected to the virtual confabs.

“Mr Trudeau should not be using a pandemic to avoid accountability and oversight, and should not be eliminating the role of the peoples’ representatives,” leader Andrew Scheer said last Friday.

But the PM, with the backing of New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois, had said it would be irresponsible to have regular sittings while public health officials urged social distancing.

Thirty MPs also meet each Wednesday in person — striking “a balance that is yielding very good results”, Trudeau said.

No legislation except emergency spending bills have been passed during the nationwide lockdown. A ban on assault weapons was enacted by executive order after a mass shooting in Nova Scotia.

Western provinces, which elected mostly Conservatives, say they’re not seeing their priorities reflected in the Liberal agenda.

Trudeau should not be eliminating the role of the peoples’ representatives, Scheer says (pic: AFP)

And the government has racked up C$325 billion (RM1 trillion) in pandemic aid.

Working from home in a suburb of balmy Vancouver, Julian doesn’t miss Ottawa, which had flurries last week.

“It’s nice spending more time in Vancou- ver,” he said.

But his days are longer as he deals with a surge in constituents’ concerns such as job losses and challenges of politicking by phone across 5,500km from coast to coast.

“When people are scattered across the world’s largest democracy (geographically), it takes longer to actually get people on the phone,” he said, versus walking down the hall to MPs’ offices in Ottawa “for a quick face-to-face meeting”.

Now, an MP in Newfoundland might start work at 8:30 am local time, when it’s 4am in British Columbia.

A committee report released last Friday called for setting up a “secure electronic voting system” for the virtual Parliament to fully function.— AFP