Politics

House of Commons seeking virtual sittings in ongoing COVID-19 shutdown

Canada's House of Commons is looking at taking its debates virtual as COVID-19 is expected to prevent a return as planned on April 20.

Opposition parties say they support idea of video conferencing - but Bloc still wants votes held in person

A small group of MPs gathered more than a week ago to debate and pass legislation to implement the government's first COVID-19 response measures. As the pandemic lockdown continues, parties are talking about how to hold more debates while maintaining physical distancing. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Canada's House of Commons is looking at taking its debates virtual as COVID-19 is expected to prevent a return as planned on April 20.

The House recessed March 13 for five weeks to ensure MPs were doing their part to slow travel and prevent the spread of COVID-19. The all-party agreement to temporarily rise included allowances for smaller numbers of MPs to convene when emergency legislation needed passing.

That happened March 24 and 25 to pass the government's massive aid package, and another emergency day is expected within the next week to make additions to the aid package.

But with most provinces extending stay-at-home orders and requests well into May, the House of Commons is now looking to have virtual sittings.

Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez Sunday wrote to House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota asking for help to make it happen. Opposition parties all appeared behind the idea, with Conservatives, Bloc Quebecois and NDP MPs all saying they will support the initiative.

House leaders will be negotiating the plan, but Rodriguez said he also needs "advice and assistance" from the House of Commons administrative staff if virtual sittings are to become a reality. It will require "substantial revisions" to the House of Commons rules.

Can MPs work from home?

"All Canadians are doing their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and we are asking them to take extraordinary measures to keep everyone safe," Rodriguez wrote in his letter to Rota.

"This includes working from home, and only leaving their homes for essential reasons. It is only appropriate that Members of Parliament practise these same measures, and adapt the way that we conduct our business during the time that the House cannot meet on a regular and normal basis."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said last week he wanted more accountability from the government, including more opportunities for opposition parties to ask questions of the government.

Watch: Scheer, speaking on April 3, proposes no tax hikes and a virtual Commons to hold government to account

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer spoke to reporters in Regina on Friday 0:46

His finance critic, Pierre Poilievre, said Sunday the party is very willing to work with the government to find ways for more committees to be held via phone or video conferencing, or for all of Parliament to meet virtually.

"Conservatives will be fully supportive of any virtual return of Parliament," he said.

Scheer later issued a statement to clarify that his party believes "the best place to provide oversight and accountability regarding the government's handling of the COVID-19 response is in the House of Commons."

He said the recent sitting demonstrated that "a small number of MPs, representing various parties, can follow public health directives while we fulfil our parliamentary duties." 

Watch: Trudeau, speaking on April 6, on the possibility of a virtual Parliament:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he's looking forward to seeing a reduced Parliament reconvene in the coming days to pass legislation to help employers affected by COVID-19, and is looking at the possibility of bringing together a virtual Parliament. 1:14

"We will continue to ask the prime minister and various ministers to provide regular updates to the House, and to be ready to explain their decisions to MPs, in order to get the best possible decisions for Canadians," Scheer said in the statement.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said in his own letter to Rota that the Bloc has been asking for this kind of initiative for several days and supports it. However Blanchet indicated he thinks any votes should still be held in person, with the smaller number of MPs as was already negotiated in the earlier agreement.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian said his party is also supportive of the plan.

"People across the country are being left behind by decisions the government is making and Canadians deserve a way to make sure they are being held accountable," Julian said.

Watch: Scheer on reconvening Parliament during Covid-19:

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says the best place to hold the government to account during the COVID-19 crisis is in the House of Commons. 0:58

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