John Ibbitson, writing in the Globe and Mail, says “The House of Commons is scheduled to return Monday. Obviously, all 338 MPs must not convene. But the time has come for regular sittings of the House, either real or virtual. Despite the COVID-19 emergency – no, because of it – we need the return of politics in Canada.” That’s absolutely correct.
“Over the past month,” he says “federal and provincial leaders and governing and opposition parties have worked together to confront and contain the pandemic. We’ve never seen such close co-operation, not even in wartime.” It has, indeed, been a remarkable thing. It was led, almost exclusively in the beginning, by one man …
… Premier Doug Ford of Ontario took the lead and has been a bit of an everyman: leading, pleading, reassuring, threatening, pushing, prodding and even lifting, too:
But, it is a national crisis and, as Mr Ibbitdon notes, “All federal political parties have joined in supporting unprecedented fiscal measures to aid workers and businesses affected by the coronavirus. Although there have been missteps, some of them with tragic consequences, over all, the country has pulled together and is pulling through this health and economic emergency.“
John Ibbitson says that “there are big decisions to make in the weeks ahead, and Parliament is the place for debating what to do. The Conservatives want the House to meet regularly, with a bare-minimum number of MPs. The Liberals, while not ruling out in-person sessions, lean toward creating a virtual House of Commons, with MPs debating online … [but] … There are problems with both approaches. The former could put support staff at risk; technical challenges could hamper the effectiveness of the latter … [and] … On Friday, each side was accusing the other of obstruction, even as negotiations continued.“
But, he says, and I agree 100%: “Enough. One way or another, Parliament must return.” Absolutely!
The correct form is simple, we should do what the United Kingdom, home of the Mother of Parliaments, is doing. We need about 10% of our elected MPs to be present, physically, in the House, even though that does increase the risk to them and to staff. Democracy is worth a few risks. The house should sit for three or even four mornings or afternoons per week. The remaining MPs, always enough for a quorum, should participate by audio-video conference and they must have full parliamentary privilege while so doing. The House of Commons video service is, surely, skilled enough to manage the integration and to install a few large screen TVs that will allow members in the House to see and hear remote participants and vice versa and that will allow Canadians to follow the proceedings on their TV sets, at home.
The Senate may have to reconsider its adjournment, too. If urgent bills are passed in the House of Commons then the Senate will need to consider them.
Anyone who opposes the notion of having some members present is, I am afraid, trying to subvert democracy.
The 10% who will be present in the House, for there or four half-days a week, must, in my opinion, include the prime minister and or the deputy prime minister plus a few key ministers including, given the nature of this situation, the ministers responsible for health, finance, public safety and foreign affairs.
John Ibbitson says that “Two huge political questions need public debate in the House. The first is when and how to relaunch the economy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premiers agree that governments must be guided by the advice of public-health authorities. Opposition parties at both the federal and provincial level concur … [but, he says] … as the economic wreckage worsens, and tempers wear thin, people will begin to resist. Those who argue that schools and some non-essential businesses should soon reopen need to be heard. How and when to reboot the economy will increasingly become a political question, as well as a question of public health.” The Canadian people need to hear those issues being debated. They need to see Messers Trudeau, Scheer, Singh and Blanchet debate those issues face-to-face, not by teleconference.
“While provincial governments will have the final say,” Mr Ibbitson says, “Ottawa plays an important role as well. Conservatives and Liberals are bound to differ on how to restore economic life in Canada. The floor of the Commons is the best place to debate those differences.” Absolutely! There is no alternative.
The second big issue, he says is that “Canada needs to reconsider its relations with China. There is growing evidence the government in Beijing suppressed information on the virulence of the coronavirus. If so, all of us have paid the price, some with their lives … [and] … Political leaders in Washington, London and Paris have openly criticized China’s secrecy. But on Friday, Mr. Trudeau dodged repeated questions from reporters on China, as he has in the past. The national parties must debate how Canada will deal with China going forward.” Once again: Absolutely!
John Ibbitson says that “There are other big issues: whether and how to change the nature of supply chains; whether the Liberal aid announced Friday for the stricken oil-and-gas sector is anything more than a sop … [and he says] … Everything that is being debated on Twitter and Facebook and in the news media needs to be debated on the floor of the House and in Question Period. Canada is a parliamentary democracy, health emergency or no health emergency.“