Virtual Parliament struggling with technology, security, interpretation, report says
Parliament's available interpreters sit at less than half their pre-pandemic numbers
A House of Commons committee has made a number of recommendations it says are required to improve its work during the pandemic including becoming fully virtual, improving cyber security and dealing with a translation service that is "dangerously close" to being unable to do its job.
A report by the standing committee on procedure and House affairs released Friday, took a look at the challenges facing Parliament as it strives to continue operating despite much of the rest of the country being shut down due to the pandemic.
The "House of Commons [should] continue to take an incremental approach ... recognizing capacity constraints, the need for testing, and the need for improvements, and that any added parliamentary activities be agreed upon by each recognized party," the report said.
Establishing a fully virtual Parliament, the report said, will require setting "up a secure electronic voting system for conducting votes in virtual sittings as soon as possible…"
The House has been adjourned since the middle of March with the exception of a few special sitting days used to pass emergency legislation.
Since last month, however, MPs have been meeting by video conference twice a week and in person once a week in a scaled-down House of Commons to deal with issues related to the pandemic.
The report notes that while most MPs have been able to participate in those virtual sessions from home, the same cannot be said for the interpreters who have been forced to come into the Parliament precinct to do their work.
Interpreters 'dangerously close' to capacity
Interpreters are struggling with the sound quality of virtual meetings which makes it challenging to understand speakers, the report said. The added stress of translating MPs who may be across the country on glitchy internet connections has resulted in a number of health issues including headaches, earaches and fatigue.
Greg Phillips, from the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), told the committee that of the 70 interpreters on staff, as many as 40 are unable to work because of health issues brought on by virtual translation, or a lack of childcare during the pandemic.
Parliament, he said, is "dangerously close" to not having enough interpreters to maintain its current workload.
The House of Commons has been using Zoom for committee meetings and virtual Parliament — situations where transparency and public access are critical. But the report says Zoom's security features make it unworkable for in- camera meetings "until further security improvements are made to the platform."
Security is not the only technological challenge facing Parliament. The report says that if Parliament is going to fully virtual, MPs across the country must "have access to the telecommunications infrastructure, including a consistent standard for hardware, software, and internet connectivity, necessary to attend virtual proceedings in their constituencies paid for through the central budget."
Until that access can be guaranteed, the report is recommending that MPs who have to travel to a nearby location to access reliable communications technology be compensated for the cost of doing so.
Watch: Speaker says backgrounds in MP's Zoom appearances should be as 'neutral as possible':
The report is also calling for the rules of decorum and procedure to be maintained during virtual sessions of Parliament such as requiring MPs wishing to speak to wear "business attire, and a prohibition on the use of "displays, props and exhibits."
In the House of Commons, MPs are not allowed to use props or visual displays to drive home their arguments. Commons Speaker Anthony Rota has already expressed concern about MPs using the virtual setting to break the rules of decorum that normally apply.
"One issue that I think must be addressed has to be with the visual background in front of which members appear," Rota told the procedure and House affairs committee last week. "Based on established practice, these backgrounds should be as neutral as possible, and consistent with the non-partisan environment of the chamber or committee."
That reminder came after Conservative MP Blaine Calkins questioned the government on what he called its "forced confiscation of law-abiding firearms owners' property" — referring to the recently announced ban on military-style assault weapons, while a hunting trophy hung on the wall behind him.
With files from The Canadian Press