Tasha Kheiriddin: Another ‘virtual' hybrid Parliament could be a dangerous thing in government hands

Have you always wanted to be an MP, but dread the thought of commuting to Ottawa? Well, you can go ahead and expand your career horizons now that the House of Commons has approved yet another session of a hybrid Parliament. Last week, MPs voted along party lines, with 180 Liberal and NDP members versus 140 Bloc Québécois and Conservatives, in favour of House sittings that combine in-person and virtual participation.

Tasha Kheiriddin: Another ‘virtual’ hybrid Parliament could be a dangerous thing in government hands
© Provided by National Post Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks via videoconference during question period in the House of Commons on Jan. 25, 2021.

The government’s official line is that this plan respects health guidelines and protects MPs from COVID exposure. “If we have no hybrid measures, there’s an obligation for members to attend regardless of their health circumstances, regardless if they’re immunocompromised,”  said Liberal House leader Mark Holland . “It is absolutely unacceptable, in a pandemic, to force them into circumstances where their health is at risk.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole didn’t buy that line. “It’s totally unacceptable for Mr. Trudeau to go to big meetings such as the (COP26) one in Glasgow, but not be able to meet here on the Hill,” he thundered. “What are the Liberals afraid of? The answer is obvious. Justin Trudeau has an aversion to accountability.”

The irony with the Conservatives’ complaint is that a hybrid Parliament helps them duck the question of just who is and isn’t vaccinated in their caucus, an issue that has dogged them since the election. MPs from all parties will choose to work virtually for any number of reasons, including spending more time in their constituency, or at home with a newborn baby. And with millions of workers now demanding the right to work at least partially from home, it may seem retrograde to argue that legislators should be an exception.

But is it? Is Parliament just a workplace like any other? Can the cause of democracy truly be served when people are not staring each other in the eye, debating the laws that will govern the life of every Canadian?

As Parliaments around the world are discovering, there are pros and cons to virtual sittings. When politicians aren’t all in the same physical space, Opposition parties party might find it harder to convey their displeasure at government responses in question period, for example. A scattering of thumbs-down emojis doesn’t have quite the same impact as a good old-fashioned braying and desk-thumping chorus in the Commons. And if the government plays procedural hardball, or the Speaker makes a ruling the Opposition disagrees with, MPs can’t muster the same response they could in person, which could decrease accountability.

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Then there’s the dress code. While no one is likely to strip down to the  full Amos this session (Will Amos, the former Liberal MP who had problems with on-camera nudity, didn’t run in the past election), there is sufficient concern about sartorial standards that the Speaker recently warned MPs to maintain the same attire that they would in person. Members have also been instructed not to wear masks with slogans or corporate logos, since advertising and props are forbidden in the actual House of Commons. Last session , all manner of items made an appearance , including a deer head, a painting of colourful turbans, and a green screen (yes, it was the Green party). Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is already taking heat for showing off his bicycle on camera.

All these distractions could easily be avoided if MPs were required to use a stock backdrop (perhaps a shot of their actual House seat?) or a standard-issue mask. And virtual participation might even enhance productivity in certain contexts, such as committees, which could continue sitting even when Parliament is not. The ability to hear witnesses remotely could expand connection between legislators who would otherwise not be able to present themselves in person.

The reality is that, with the work-from-home revolution, some form of hybrid Parliament is probably here to stay. We had better make it work. The government owes it to Canadians to ensure that the hybrid system isn’t used cynically, as a way to duck responsibility, and instead prove that it can be used properly and ethically, as a way to enhance our democracy.

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