It’s amazing how it can be the little things that can make some of the biggest impacts in our political life. That’s something that has proved to be true over and over again when it comes to various issues, scandals and how the small things can really drive home the point about the bigger issue. Remember David Dingwall’s $3 pack of gum that he expensed, or Bev Oda’s $18 glass of orange juice? Both of those became stark examples in their own stories that really helped people grasp onto those issues and drove home the points there.
In this age of COVID-19, while we’re seeing governments struggling to get proper testing in place and infections rising, here too the relatively smaller things really hit close to home and leave so many of us shaking our heads. That’s what was ringing through my ears when I saw this piece reported by CBC on The National last night, which just blew my mind:
Yes folks, here we are well into the seventh month of this global pandemic, at the start of the second wave that promises to be far worse than the first, and that story is something that actually happened. And yeah, I completely believe it. For those who don’t know, in behind the seats in the chamber of the House of Commons there are two areas that are called “lobbies”. They are basically super wide hallways with chairs and a few workstations where MPs and a small number of political staff work, talk and take a bite to eat.
When talks were happening to re-start the House, the lobbies would clearly be a pinch point as they are tight spaces. In the old Centre Block, the lobbies are a good size and have a decent amount of space. But like with everything else that’s been happening around the renovations of Parliament Hill, when the House moved to the temporary chamber in the West Block, things were tighter. That’s just a function of trying to squeeze the same number of things into a smaller square footage. For the lobbies, that means what was a tight space in Centre Block became even tighter in the temporary Commons in West Block. And it’s very tight.
So when those talks were happening to re-start the House during COVID, it would have been clear that the lobbies would be an issue, not only because that’s where most MPs come in and go out of the House, but also because that’s where the pages are and other staff. You’d think that this very situation, of tight spaces and the need for people to move through there, would have been addressed. And to some degree, it was. As the CBC piece points out, the NDP actually removed furniture from the tight space to create more space.
Yet still, with all of that, there was always going to be an element that depended on the good will of people; actually following the rules that everyone else is having to. And inside the Commons chamber, MPs have been very careful about that, likely because they are live on TV and can be seen by all if they are flouting the rules. But the lobbies aren’t televised to the World, and according to this story, some MPs have taken advantage of that fact to not follow those rules while they’re expecting everyday Canadians to do the same.
What blew my mind about this story is that to me it’s clear that this had been going on for a while, mostly because this just didn’t come up yesterday. It’s clear that the pages raised these issues a while ago and I would naturally assume that the House would have raised concerns about this with the parties to improve this behaviour. The fact that things have escalated to the point that the House installed plexiglass barriers in those same lobbies to sit in that space tells you that those requests were not heeded by enough MPs. Not only is that disrespectful of everyone else around them by those MPs who are giving the middle finger to basic public health, the “solution” provided to the pages is no solution at all. Seriously, they are talking about basically created a plexiglass cubicle around a chair for those young pages to sit in. They can’t stay in that space because eventually they will have to get up to do anything, from doing their job or just to get a glass of water.
The only real solution in that space is for everyone to follow the rules as they exist everywhere else outside of the Commons. Not only is that the safest way for all, it also sends the clearest message to the public who are watching this and looking for their MPs to set the good example for all. When a story like this comes out, it may seem like a small detail, but it sends a loud message to all Canadians that we cannot afford. It undermines the important messages sent to the public about following those measures and hurts public confidence. Like that $3 pack of gum or the $18 glass of OJ, this story can stick in the mind of so many and undo a lot of good work.
At this point of this crisis, all of this shouldn’t have to be said. We shouldn’t have to point out that not following these rules in confined spaces where two leaders who have had COVID are frequently is dangerous, both to the health of those pages and staff, but for how it undermines the efforts to fight this disease. After seven months of sacrifice and more to come, we shouldn’t have to say this at all. It’s simple and basic, wear your damn masks MPs. Yet here we are, having to say the obvious and only because some MPs decided to do behind the curtain and away from prying eyes what they would chide others for doing in public. It shouldn’t take the public shaming that this story brings to make the right thing happen, but it looks like this time it does. Time for Parliament to do better because part of their job is to set the example, and if some of them can’t be bothered to do the right thing and inconvenience themselves for the common good, then it will just be easier for others to use their example as a reason not to do it themselves. And that’s the last thing we need right now.