Parliament to return under hybrid format after contentious debate in House of Commons
Liberals argue it's safer to allow some MPs to participate virtually; O'Toole calls PM a hypocrite
The House of Commons decided in a Thursday evening vote to return under a hybrid format, which will allow MPs to attend debates, committee meetings and cast votes virtually if they choose to do so.
Debate over the plan to return to the model used for the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic had dominated Parliament since its return this week, as MPs dug in on clearly defined party lines.
The Liberals and NDP supported a return to a hybrid Parliament, while the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois wanted to see all MPs return in-person.
Green MP Mike Morrice and Independent MP Kevin Vuong also voted in favour of the hybrid model. The final tally was 180 in favour and 140 against.
The previous hybrid format ended with the dissolution of Parliament prior to the September federal election. The reinstated version will be in place until at least June 2022.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole came out swinging earlier Thursday against Liberal attempts to restore a virtual Parliament, calling a return to the hybrid model that allows MPs to dial into the proceedings from outside Ottawa a cynical attempt by the Liberals to duck accountability and undermine the work of the opposition.
O'Toole said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is using the COVID-19 crisis as cover to ram through a motion that would allow fewer MPs to be physically present in the Commons each day.
With most of the adult population fully vaccinated, O'Toole wanted all 338 MPs on hand to speak and vote in person. The Liberals maintain it would be safer to allow some members to participate remotely while the virus is still circulating.
Liberal House Leader Mark Holland has said he's heard from MPs with compromised immune systems who are uncomfortable with the idea of being in the chamber with Conservative MPs who refuse to get vaccinated.
An unknown number of Conservative MPs have claimed medical exemptions to the Commons vaccine mandate.
WATCH: O'Toole says vote on hybrid Parliament is about keeping the government 'accountable to Canadians'
Under a hybrid model, MPs who are leery about large gatherings like this can call in from their constituencies, Holland said, and parliamentarians who catch COVID-19 can participate from isolation.
At least one Conservative MP, Richard Lehoux, has contracted COVID-19 in the last week, Holland said, adding that ending the hybrid model would disenfranchise Lehoux and any other MP who has to quarantine.
O'Toole said he's not buying the Liberal explanations.
"It's totally unacceptable for Mr. Trudeau to go to big meetings such as the one in Glasgow but not be able to meet here on the Hill," O'Toole said, referring to the COP26 climate summit in Scotland.
"This is just another example of a government out of touch with the needs of Canadians and totally focused on their own petty interests."
O'Toole said Trudeau is intent on going back to "hybrid hibernation" and wants to hide from the accountability that can only come from facing opposition MPs in the chamber. The prime minister was comfortable being in a room with "thousands of people" at COP26, he said, "but he can't be around a few dozen people here."
"Why is the prime minister being such a hypocrite? What are the Liberals afraid of? The answer is obvious. Justin Trudeau has an aversion to accountability," O'Toole said.
Holland later hit back at O'Toole, saying Parliament is "very different" from the COP26 summit or a campaign stop because participants in those events could choose whether to attend based on their own level of comfort with crowds.
"If we have no hybrid measures, there's an obligation for members to attend regardless of their health circumstances, regardless if they're immunocompromised," he said. "It is absolutely unacceptable, in a pandemic, to force them into circumstances where their health is at risk.
"We have people flying in from every corner of the country, spending a week together, co-mingling in a very, very small space and then going back to every part of the country."
Despite O'Toole's protests, the hybrid model is expected to return after a vote later tonight because NDP MPs have agreed to back the Liberal motion that will allow for virtual participation until June 2022.
Speaking in the Commons during debate on the hybrid motion, Conservative MP Michael Barrett said Liberal cabinet ministers routinely skirted accountability during the last Parliament by claiming "technical difficulties" when facing a tough question.
He said that even when some cabinet ministers were physically in Ottawa, they joined parliamentary proceedings from their offices so they could read talking points off their computer screens.
Liberals avoiding Parliament 'like the plague' — Conservative MP
"What we saw was disgraceful — ministers wouldn't even walk across the street or come downstairs to sit in an empty house to be accountable to Canadians," Barrett said. "What we've seen in this place is ministers, the prime minister, parliamentary secretaries and backbenchers on the government side absolutely avoid this place like it was the plague."
He said Liberal MPs "want to get paid to sit in their basements at home."
Barrett said Liberal ministers and MPs are also keen to avoid the hurly-burly of in-person media scrums in the halls of Parliament by returning to more stage-managed virtual press conferences moderated by bureaucrats and political staffers.
In response to Conservative suggestions that Trudeau and other ministers will be absent from the Commons frequently, Holland said Thursday they will "absolutely be attending physically in the chamber."
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, the party's natural resources critic, said she might have been sympathetic to Liberal arguments in favour of a virtual Parliament had Trudeau not prompted an election campaign during a fourth wave of the pandemic.
Pointing to Trudeau campaign events that featured hundreds of attendees, Rempel Garner said the Liberals raise COVID-19 concerns only when it's convenient for them politically.
Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen defended the hybrid model in the face of these Conservative criticisms.
"This is about flexibility for members. It's very common for workplaces to establish practices to ensure people can still participate and do their jobs," he said. "If I happen to catch COVID, why wouldn't you extend the ability for me to do that virtually? That's all this motion is talking about.
"No matter what we've brought forward, there has always been opposition from the Conservatives to anything that protects the safety of Canadians. It's absolutely shameful that they don't think it's important to extend these provisions."