Conservative Senate leader wants the Red Chamber back in business
Sen. Don Plett proposes the Senate sit two days a week 'to ensure oversight and transparency'
Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett wants the Red Chamber to return to semi-normal operations with in-person sittings in Ottawa.
There have been only three Senate sittings since March 25 — meetings called to pass emergency COVID-19 legislation.
Most senators have been back in their home provinces since the pandemic-related lockdowns were enacted.
Some committees have been meeting virtually throughout this health crisis, but there has been little opportunity for senators to ask questions of Sen. Marc Gold, the government representative in the upper house.
In a letter sent Thursday to Speaker George Furey, Plett said the time has come for some senators to return to work in Ottawa.
"These sittings would have a more abbreviated form than usual, but they would provide Canadians with the opportunity to see parliamentarians at work during these difficult times," Plett said in the letter, obtained by CBC News.
'Storms have come and gone'
He said he's aware Canada is faced with "unprecedented" challenges due to the pandemic, but he still wants the Senate to sit to "uphold our crucial democratic role in keeping the executive branch of the government in check," especially at a time when government spending has ballooned to help Canadians weather COVID-19.
"Storms have come and gone, but the role of Parliament to ensure oversight and transparency should never be weakened or undermined, regardless of the crisis of the day or the party in power," he said.
A spokesperson for Speaker Furey said he is "currently engaged in consultations with Senate leadership regarding the Senate's planned return next week. Information will be communicated once a decision has been reached."
In a statement, Gold said discussions are underway among all of the party leaders to find the "right balance" to protect the health and safety of senators so the Senate can "fulfil its legislative duties responsibly."
"Because of the uncertain nature and duration of the pandemic, just like many other Canadian workplaces, different models are currently being considered for the long haul," Gold said.
"I believe all Senate leaders agree that it is crucial that the Senate continue to adapt and find new ways to fulfil its role despite the pandemic."
Plett estimates there's room for 40 senators in the 105-member chamber — a number low enough for them to maintain physical distancing measures.
The Conservatives mounted a similar campaign in the Commons but failed to convince the Liberals and the NDP that in-person sittings should return.
Instead, the Commons adopted a government motion that allows for a hybrid model of sorts, with some MPs in Ottawa and others joining in on the proceedings via the Zoom videoconferencing platform.
For the first time ever, MPs are being allowed to participate in parliamentary debate either from their seats in the House of Commons or by logging in online.
A problem for Atlantic Canadian senators
The return to normal sittings will be a challenge for some senators, notably for those who live in Atlantic Canada.
The Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador have restrictions on domestic travellers that require people to self-isolate for 14 days when returning to the province.
Plett is proposing that the Senate sit for two days a week for the next three weeks, until the scheduled conclusion of the Commons on June 17. The sitting days would be either Tuesdays and Wednesdays or Wednesdays and Thursdays.
He said that a cabinet minister should appear before the chamber at least once a week to field questions on the pandemic —similar to what the Commons COVID-19 "committee of the whole" has been doing for weeks.
He also wants to bring back the Senate's committees, where much of the chamber's "sober second thought" function is carried out.
Committees still not assembled
The Senate still has not agreed on who should sit on each committee, some eight months after the federal election. The Senate has sat for only 17 days in 2020.
"Once organized, these committees may meet on the days the Senate sits, albeit in a hybrid form of in-person and virtual attendance, with permission of all whips and facilitators, and solely to discuss COVID-19 related issues," Plett said.
The selection committee convened on May 1 to draft membership lists for the other committees — but the way the meeting was called is now subject to a question of privilege.
Since then, the Progressive Senate Group, a caucus of mostly former Liberal senators, has recruited enough members to be officially "recognized," which will give them access to committee seats. The Progressives were not given equitable access to seats in the last selection committee report.