We are pretty much a month into this new, odd normal of living with Covid-19 and frankly, it’s almost hard to believe that it’s been that long. I know for me personally, working from home as my family does their learning and teaching from home, the days have started to bleed into one another. I literally had to ask myself what day it was the other day because of how disorienting this whole period has been. As creatures of habit, having such a major change to our lives come so suddenly can have that effect.
But despite that, we have moved forward as a society and for the most part, done what we need to do. We’ve made adjustments, alternations and changes to continue with the essentials as best as possible and when not possible, erring on the side of caution and suspending them. The choice has been to put public health first, and then work around that. That has been the right approach, despite the problems and inconveniences that has created.
One place where we’ve seen that tension come into play has been our houses of Parliament. They were suspended last month in the attempt to do their part to bend the curve and help set the example. They passed emergency measures to allow the government to function, to set up a process to bring back a truncated Parliament to address other emergency measures and set a return date for April 20th. We’ve already seen the House come back once to pass other emergency measures and today it returns for a second time to do the same.
One thing that is increasingly clear though is that Parliament won’t be coming back to normal on April 20th, as things just aren’t that ready to open up yet. And this is where the tension is now coming; “What do we do going forward?” The fact is that we don’t know when the current restrictions will be lifted and to be fair, we know that until a vaccine is created, we will see other waves and will likely have to shut things down again. That’s forcing many institutions to plan for how they will operate in a prolonged period of public shut down, our Parliament included. House of Commons staff are looking at virtual options and could be weeks away, but for some the very idea of doing a virtual Commons is just a step too far. That opinion was put to words in the Globe and Mail yesterday, in a piece that left me shaking my head:
Look, I understand that in everything in life there will be contrarians and that some people will simply not want to entertain certain ideas, but this piece takes things to new heights (or depths) of hair splitting at the worst possible time. To say that Parliament can’t be done virtually in 2020 is just one of the worst examples of burying one’s head in the sand, and then the explanations for it are just that much worse. The author points to Section 48 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which states “The Presence of at least Twenty Members of the House of Commons shall be necessary to constitute a Meeting of the House for the Exercise of its Powers.” By his reading, “presence” means that someone much be physically present in the chamber. That isn’t in writing anywhere it should be noted. If I was to generous, I would point out that’s a convention, which is how most of the rules that operate our Parliament are.
When it comes to convention, those can be changed with the unanimous consent of the House of Commons and believe it or not, that’s happened many, many times. When it comes to “presence”, the same thing is true of House of Commons committees and they have operated in many ways outside of the House of Commons for decades. Committees travel and hold meetings all over the country, which would fly in the face of that convention if they had not changed it. Furthermore, before this crisis we’ve regularly seen those same committees get testimony from witnesses by phone and video conference from all around the World, not forcing those witnesses to be there in person. I doubt that was something our first Parliamentarians envisioned when those conventions were first created, yet they were adjusted to meet reality. And just these past two weeks, we’ve seen multiple House of Commons committees have full meeting done by conference call and video conference, members and witnesses, where no one was “present” in Parliament. Again, the moment required this and convention changed to make it work.
Also it should be noted that there was a time that it was against convention of the House of Commons to have video cameras recording proceedings. But that was changed in the 1970’s by Parliament when it became unacceptable in the day and age of cable TV that people couldn’t watch what their elected officials were doing. That convention held on so long in the Senate that it wasn’t until last year that we finally saw cameras in that chamber. But again, public expectations changed, and the convention changed with it.
The author also points to the fact that each Chamber cannot proceed without the presence of their Mace, which is true. But here’s the thing about that fact that the author leaves out or fails to mention; there is nothing that states that only one “mace” is the acceptable one. The fact is that the House of Commons has had different maces over time, and in the same Parliaments has used a different mace. There is nothing that states what a mace must be made of, so really anything can be said to be the mace if there is consent for that. So what is there to stop Parliament from creating a digital mace, to serve that function? Nothing, that’s what. And even if that’s a problem in your eyes, you could create a “mace cam” so that in the virtual sitting there was a mace present. But folks, for me the biggest argument against this “we can never do virtual Parliaments” thinking comes from what’s happening in the United Kingdom, the place where our Parliamentary system comes from. What are they doing in this time, to deal with the same problem? Well lookie here:
Yes folks, that’s the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the “Mother” of our Parliament, looking at going virtual. They are in the process of looking at how they can make it work, a Parliament that has double the number of MPs that we have here. And if that doesn’t lance this whole “tradition” argument, the bloody oldest Parliament in all the World, on the Isle of Man, is going virtual too. Yes, even for the chamber that holds that title, where you’d think that “tradition” would trump all, they are doing the practical thing and holding virtual sessions. Granted it’s easier for them to do with a smaller Parliament, but the argument against this hasn’t been the size of the body, but the traditions involved with it.
So yeah, when the Parliaments that inspired and helped create our institutions are looking at virtual options, there are no traditional reasons for us to not look at virtual sittings for Canada. Tradition and convention are no excuses here, and to try to trot them out as such is just wasting precious time trying to come up with a serious solution. We have to face facts here, that we will be in this position, in some way, shape or form, for a while to come. That means for our democracy to operate, we will need to come up with some creative solutions to help make that happen. Dragging a small handful of MPs to Ottawa at a moment’s notice (along with all the staff needed to make it run), just to say you met in person, is not very practical in the short term and will become even more impractical as this continues on, especially when we have digital options before us.
If you believe that Parliament truly is an “essential service”, then that should mean that it you should want it to operate however it can be made to work. Essential means that it has to happen, regardless of how it’s done, not putting constraints around it that make no practical sense, especially when those can be addressed in different means. Those who chose to insist and focus on traditions of convention in this moment are really missing the forest for the trees and are not helping to find a solution. Right now we need solutions, and if you don’t have anything to offer on that front now, we don’t need to hear it because only solutions will help ensure that this essential service of Parliament can serve the function that we need in these important times.