Over the past month our country and society as a whole has had many difficult situations and decisions thrust upon us by the Covid-19 global pandemic. We’ve had to deal with the emergencies that have arisen while also plan for the future as best as we can. That’s meant that many different groups, companies, governments at all levels and businesses have had to try to figure out how they can operate in this environment.
For some, that is meant working virtually and spending lots of their days on their video conferencing service of choice. For others, that is mean teaching in a virtual environment. For some it has involved having to shut down their businesses or modify them in big ways, like restaurants closing dining rooms and moving to full delivery services. In all cases, operations as normal were not an option and faced with the choice of closing their doors or modifying, the vast majority have modified to try to stay afloat through this time.
The same is true when it comes to our democratic institutions, as most of them are currently suspended with small, emergency sessions being used to pass emergency legislation. The fact is that Parliament, with its historic buildings & very tight spaces, is not a place that is conducive to social distancing. When you add to that fact that MPs from all over the country are coming together in confined spaces, then potentially going back home, the risks of transmission and spreading this disease are much higher than the regular job out there. That all seemed very clear when all parties in the House of Commons agreed to suspend Parliament, to do their part for public safety and to keep everyone safer. Yet now it seems that this commonsense consensus may be coming part, as one party is taking a stand that’s hard to reconcile with what’s happening out there:
For the most part during this crisis, the vast majority of MPs and parties have been acting right and been showing that we’re all pulling in the same direction. It has been refreshing to see that normal partisanship mostly fall to the side. Sure there have been some flare ups of partisan stupidity in there, but for the most part everyone has done a great job on that front and deserve full credit for it. But this position being taken by the Conservatives and their current leader Andrew Scheer boggles my mind, especially in this moment. Basically his argument is that there must be in-person meetings in the House of Commons, period. Doing it digitally or virtually will not cut it, nope. Everyone must be in that chamber together and to Mr. Scheer, nothing less will do.
The typical argument that we’re hearing from the Conservatives is that to do anything less is equivalent to MPs trying to duck doing their jobs, which is twisted logic coming from a party that always used to talk about how an MPs most important work was outside of the House. The work that MPs do in Ottawa, in the House of Commons is important, but it’s only a small part of huge loads of work that they do on behalf of their constituents. All MPs have been working long hours under a lot of stress during this pandemic, regardless of where the chair that they are sitting in is located. To try to suggest otherwise is disingenuous at best.
But another argument that we have seen come out here, which seems to be a bigger part of the thrust from Mr. Scheer, is this idea that doing a virtual sitting would somehow be a lesser representation, a lesser exercise and therefore wouldn’t be good enough. Look, doing it online is not perfect or the most ideal situation out there, I think that most people would agree with that. But in these circumstances, if the House of Commons staff can get it to work, it is the best option because it allows everyone to stay a safe distance away. The risks of exposing others to Covid-19 in the chamber or Parliament buildings, or in transit as MPs come from all across the country, go way down when you attend a Parliamentary sitting in front of your computer at home. Right now health outcomes are the most important thing, so really that trumps all.
Finally I cannot help but think of this fight, in this important moment, as being so ill-timed and wrongheaded. Parliament is an essential service and as I pointed out the other day, we can find creative ways to keep that essential service going without forcing people into that small chamber. The fact is that we have many essential services out there right now, with people working in those roles putting their lives at risk to keep out country going. But they are not going to their workplaces to work those jobs because they prefer it. No, they are going to their workplaces to do their jobs because they cannot do their jobs from a distance. A grocery store check-out clerk cannot do that via Skype from his or her living rooms. An ER nurse cannot care for a suffering patient via Zoom from his or her basement.
These jobs are not essential because of where they do their work, but because of the work that they do. Those jobs are essential, regardless of the workplace they are performed in, it is just that those nurses, doctors, truck drivers, grocery store workers and others don’t have the choice to do it from the safety of home. Members of Parliament, if they get the technology sorted out, have that option before them and they should be insisting on using it. It’s 2020, and you can provide oversight from anywhere you have a laptop decent internet or by phone. So I hope that Mr. Scheer and his party keep that in mind and back down from this demand because if the House of Commons is forced to return to regular sittings on Monday it will set a bad example for the rest of the country at a time when our political leaders should be the ones setting the best example.