Yes, we can have a 'virtual' Parliament — but we shouldn't get used to the idea
MPs already spend too little time in each other's company and it's undermining the institution
In any other crisis, it might be reassuring to see that Parliament is still sitting — that the official business of democracy is carrying on undaunted.
But in the midst of a global pandemic — when allowing people to come anywhere near each other risks spreading a potentially deadly disease — asking MPs to convene in the House of Commons seems foolish, even dangerous.
In such unusual circumstances, there are good reasons to ask whether the business of Parliament can be done remotely or virtually. Just as millions of Canadians are learning to work from home and meet via videoconferencing, parliamentarians might need to adjust — even if they, like the rest of us, might be better off working in the same room as their colleagues.
Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez formally raised the possibility of virtual sittings in a letter this weekend to the Speaker of the House.
Doing politics in a pandemic
Legislatures across the world are grappling with the problem of conducting business while COVID-19 remains a threat. Some observers in Canada have called already for extraordinary arrangements. Canadian legislators may soon have a model from the United Kingdom, where discussions are underway on having the House of Commons conduct virtual sittings.
In Canada, at the federal level, the House committees on finance and health already are meeting remotely, via conference calls, to hear witnesses and study the Liberal government's response to COVID-19.
But general meetings of the House have so far been limited to a single sitting on March 24, with just 32 MPs present (a second sitting is expected soon to pass another emergency bill).
Most of those MPs in attendance were members who lived within driving distance of Ottawa, or cabinet ministers who were already in the capital.
Under the circumstances, it makes sense to operate with a reduced number of MPs — it's safer than convening a full House and it's consistent with the demands that are being made of the general public. Parliament might be an "essential service" but political leaders also need to model proper behaviour.
But performing the important functions of Parliament with just 32 MPs also implies that the other 306 MPs are somewhat irrelevant or unnecessary. For decades, observers have deplored the diminished influence and importance of backbench MPs. Operating Parliament with just a few dozen MPs runs the risk of suggesting publicly that most MPs don't matter.
Muting the QP shenanigans
At the very least, the current arrangement privileges those MPs who live closest to Ottawa.
In certain respects, a virtual Parliament — imagine something like a 338-member video call — might even be an improvement on the real thing.
The Speaker could, for instance, be empowered to mute hecklers. MPs, sitting alone in their own homes, might be less inclined toward the incessant clapping and cheering they apparently feel compelled to take part in whenever they're sitting together. Deprived of the dramatic surroundings of Parliament, MPs also might drop the amateur theatrics that typify question period.
Whether Parliament needs to sit every day right now is debatable. The government is consumed by an immediate and urgent crisis and the opposition parties are still able to raise their voices publicly to express concerns and ask questions.
But sometime after the first wave of COVID-19 abates, and if the current lockdown persists, it would be nice to have some kind of Parliament again. At some point, the other business of governing has to carry on. And a virtual Parliament seems preferable to the alternatives — at least for a limited time.
A stop-gap solution
Ultimately, the old-fashioned, in-person way of carrying out the business of the nation is still ideal. An extraordinary arrangement to deal with an extraordinary situation probably shouldn't be confused with a new permanent model — for many of the same reasons that explain why the rest of us will be far better off when we're not confined to our homes.
Going back to the 1980s, serious consideration has been given periodically to allowing MPs to vote electronically on legislation and motions before the House — to moving away from the practice of having MPs stand, one by one, in their seats in the House to register their support or opposition. Though it has been raised several times, MPs have never followed through.
Bill Blaikie, a widely respected former NDP MP, once pointed out that making that change would have at least one significant drawback: it would eliminate one of the few occasions when MPs from all parties are gathered in the same place. In the time between votes, Blaikie said, he could cross the floor to speak with another member or raise an issue directly with a minister.
Do MPs need to spend more time together?
Ned Franks, one of the pre-eminent scholars of Canada's Parliament, once made a related observation about the modern institution that might explain why the House of Commons has gotten more antagonistic over the years.
In earlier eras, he wrote in 2012, MPs spent more of their time in Ottawa. Elected members moved their families to Ottawa and spent their weekends there. The House of Commons also sat for more days each year on average.
"Competition between parties was fierce, but it was often muted and tempered by close acquaintance and common experiences and difficulties," Franks wrote.
As politics and the job of the average MP evolved, members spent less time in Ottawa and less time around each other. When the House is sitting, most MPs now leave Ottawa on Thursday night to return to their ridings to spend the weekends shaking hands at community events.
"The consequences of a four-day-week Parliament that meets for fewer than half the weeks of the year are less informal contact between members from different parties, a decreased sense of common purpose and a much less collegial atmosphere," Franks argued.
In the social media era that exploded in the time since Franks wrote those words, it has only gotten easier and more tempting for MPs to sneer at each other from afar.
For the sake of maintaining a vital institution in the midst of a pandemic, Parliament may have to adapt.
But just as we all hope to see each other again soon, it might still be better for MPs to return as quickly as possible to a place where they can cast aspersions upon each other directly.