Hybrid House sittings: Liberals propose making permanent

Government House Leader Mark Holland has unveiled the federal Liberals’ plans to make hybrid sittings a permanent feature in the House of Commons.

What was enacted as a temporary measure to ensure Parliament’s business could continue safely during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic has since become a mainstay through a series of time-limited agreements.

And now, the minority Liberal government is looking to open up the Standing Orders once again, to cement these changes in the rulebook that governs the House.

Holland tabled a 25-page proposal, detailing more than 50 changes to the Standing Orders that will allow MPs to continue participating virtually in debates and committee meetings. It would also allow for the continuance of the Commons-developed electronic voting application that allows MPs to vote remotely from anywhere in Canada, with verification measures.

Some of the other changes proposed seek to codify existing practices of the House, such as how members are recognized, their decorum requirements, how documents such as reports and petitions can be presented electronically, and scheduling adjustments regarding the timing and processing of votes.

The proposed package does not dictate how many days MPs have to appear in person, nor does the House have capacity limits, so if every MP still wants to show up in person, they can.

“Over the last year or so, we’ve settled in to a new normal,” Holland told reporters in the West Block foyer on Thursday. “These provisions have worked well, and have been used responsibly.”

This comes after the Procedure and House Affairs Committee recommended the hybrid structure and electronic voting system should become the new way of doing things, with some caveats. As part of the committee’s work, MPs are heard from current and former parliamentarians, as well as international parliamentary officials.

In a response to the committee’s work, the federal government indicated that it supported MPs’ recommendations while noting that, ultimately, it would be up to the House to decide how to proceed.

To accommodate MPs participating remotely, large screens were placed on either side of the Speaker’s chair in the Chamber, to broadcast whomever is speaking, whether in-person or at home, to the House.

Holland’s announcement comes just a few weeks before the current hybrid sitting provisions are set to expire on June 23 when MPs are scheduled to decamp for the summer, and at an acrimonious time in the Commons’ sitting calendar.

It is expected that debate over the proposal may be contentious, as not all MPs are supportive of this break with decades of parliamentary precedent, particularly the Conservatives who despite continuing to avail themselves of the virtual provisions alongside other parties, think the House is going ” too far, too fast.”

In a statement, Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer called the move a Liberal swerve on scrutiny.

“Justin Trudeau avoids accountability any chance he gets,” Scheer said. “So it’s no surprise he’s permanently giving himself the ability to call it in.”

Scheer voiced concern that the move would lead to more committee meetings being cancelled, due to a lack of resources to allow for virtual presentations.

On their way in to question period on Thursday, Conservative MPs Rachel Thomas and Shannon Stubbs said they think MPs should be in-person when in Parliament.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet had more of a mixed reaction, saying that while debating through a camera is not the same, his party isn’t entirely against it as it may sometimes be a useful tool.

Holland’s announcement comes just a few weeks before the current hybrid sitting provisions are set to expire, and at an acrimonious time in the Commons’ sitting calendar.

It is expected that the debate over the proposal may be contentious, as not all MPs are supportive of this break with decades of parliamentary precedent.

Still, the government’s point person in the House said Thursday he’s confident when debate on the proposal kicks off next week, the Liberals will have enough support to see these changes pass.

“I’ve reflected very deeply on whether or not these provisions should be used, and I came to the very firm conclusion that they should. But I will say this, I do believe 100, 1,000 years from now, hybrid will continue, and I think it will because it’s the right thing. But, changing the Standing Orders if Parliament or Canadians feel that this is something that isn’t working, is something that can be changed,” Holland said.

While the use of the electronic elements has decreased as pandemic restrictions have eased, some MPs have advocated for what they consider historic and innovative virtual workarounds to remain long-term.

Among the core arguments from those supportive of sticking with hybrid, are that having the flexibility to participate virtually has allowed them to essentially be two places in one: available to their constituents and families at important moments, as well as able to participate in proceedings in proceedings Ottawa.

“The NDP will be supporting changes to continue with a hybrid Parliament. Being able to participate remotely ensures that, even if an MP gets sick or has an emergency in their riding, they are still able to make their constituents’ voices heard by voting and speaking on issues that matter to Canadians,” said NDP Leader Peter Julian in a statement.

During the three years of its use, however, there have been several snafus and more serious transgressions associated with the hybrid-sitting model, from poor audio and video quality and connectivity issues, to MPs having to apologize for taking the debate into the toilet with them.

Just in the last few days, the Liberals have balked about what they view as Conservative obstructionism and attempts to use the virtual voting system to slow down proceedings. Asked why the Liberals still are set on seeing hybrid continue given this, Holland said one party’s choices about how to use a system, doesn’t mean the system itself is flawed.

Prior to the pandemic-era arrangements, MPs did find workarounds to have their votes counted if they could not present through procedural measures like pairing votes. They did not have the ability to participate in debate without being in the Chamber in person.

One of the outstanding issues connected to the influx of virtual parliamentary work, both in the House and at committees, is the impact it has had on interpreters. MPs, many from the Bloc Quebecois, have called on the federal government to take steps to see how the system can be improved, and whether additional interpreters can be recruited. The House administration has already taken measures meant to protect interpreters, including mandating the use of high-quality headsets.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek informed MPs last week that she was “committed to working collaboratively with key partners and stakeholders to ensure that critical interpretation services are available to all members of Parliament in a manner that meets the specific needs of all members while ensuring a healthy and effective workforce.”

Asked how the government can justify insisting on the latest round of public service union negotiations that federal workers must be in the office a few days a week, while not putting the same prescriptions on politicians, Holland said it’s “a very different kind of job,” where MPs are away from their families more than 100 nights of the year.

Equal Voice is applauding the move as one that will allow for improved work-life balance for MPs and potentially attracting a wider range of Canadians to federal politics.

“Hybrid participation has the potential to attract a greater pool of qualified candidates for the job, especially women and gender-diverse individuals,” said the organization in a statement on Thursday. “This will make Parliament a more accessible workplace and we believe will advance the goal of gender parity in politics.”