COVID-19: Virtual and reduced in-person Parliament

Trudeau on Habs

Virtual and reduced in-person Parliament – The Liberal Government has negotiated an agreement with the Conservatives to ensure that Parliament meets regularly during the COVID-19 crisis. Parliament was suspended on March 13th because of concerns about transmitting the potentially deadly coronavirus but was recalled twice to pass emergency legislation. A few dozen MPs showed up on March 24th and then again on April 11th to sign off on Canada’s Emergency Response Benefits (CERB) package. Under the new formula an in-person Parliament will meet every Wednesday with fewer MPs than usual representing their respective parties, in order to facilitate social distancing. There will be two virtual sittings of Parliament via teleconferencing on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

Prime Minister Trudeau has been giving daily press conferences on COVID-19 without parliamentary oversight raising the ire of the Official Opposition. Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that if the PM and Liberal ministers can hold press scrums outside the House of Commons and safely practice social distancing then the same can be done inside it. He said that MPs are essential workers and have the right to work under the law and they must be able to hold the Government to account. Scheer drew attention to the fact that Parliament is undergoing renovation while noting that on-site workers seem to be managing social distancing.

Right here on Parliament Hill, construction workers are continuing to renovate Centre Block, a project that is expected to take at least ten years, he said. If they can safely renovate the building that houses our Parliament then surely we can do our duty to uphold the bedrock of our democracy. Scheer said the stakes have never been higher and parliamentary scrutiny is essential.  Canadians’ lives and livelihoods literally depend on the government getting the response to a pandemic right, he said.

The Conservatives initially wanted three in-person sittings per week arguing that virtual sittings could be unfair to MPs who live in rural areas and don’t have broadband Internet connections. The Liberals, Bloc, NDP and Greens argued that every in-person meeting of MPs constitutes a health risk although Jagmeet Singh, Leader of the New Democrats said that he understood the concern over parliamentary access for rural MPs. Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez said that about 50 members of the parliamentary staff are required to attend whenever the House is in session, but the Conservatives took the view that the risks to staff could be mitigated. In any event, they struck a compromise.

Ironically, many politicians haven’t been practicing social distancing since the outbreak of COVID-19. There are dozens of photographs of ministers and health officials seated close together at press conferences urging the public to practice social distancing or better still, self-isolation. Ditto, for the media. A damning photo posted on Twitter on April 16th shows the media huddled together outside Rideau Cottage where the prime minister has been speaking daily on the federal government’s response to COVID-19. However, another photo, also taken at Rideau Cottage and published around the same time by Bloomberg News, shows the media appropriately spaced for social distancing. Different media crews? Very possibly. From the outset there has been conflicting messaging about COVID-19 and what constitutes best practices. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if some journalists or their camera operators aren’t clear on what the safety norms are for the media given their designation as essential workers

The PM found himself in hot water last week when it came to light that his wife Sophie Gregoire had posted photos on Facebook of herself, Justin Trudeau, and their children on Easter Sunday at Harrington Lake, the prime minister’s sprawling estate in Gatineau, Quebec. The images of the Trudeau family enjoying themselves in an outdoor setting were galling to many coming at a time when Parks Canada has closed all national parks, camp sites, marine conservation areas, and historic sites until further notice while ordinary citizens find themselves locked up in desiccated cities where the economy and social life have ground to a halt by government decree and travel for recreational purposes is on hold. However, the optics of the PM on vacation in the midst of a humanitarian crisis are the least of it.

The all-season retreat known as Harrington Lake includes several buildings surrounded by lush woods with the main house overlooking the lake. According to the National Capital Commission which manages the country property, in addition to being one of three official residences of the prime minister, Harrington Lake has a “public vocation” although this doesn’t mean that it is open to the general public. From the time of Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (1957-1963) to the present day, the stately resort in Gatineau Park has served as a gathering place for successive prime ministers and their entourages. 

It is this element of Harrington Lake’s dual-purpose vocation that has some members of the opposition worried. So long as Parliament is functioning normally, it is the prerogative of the prime minister to meet with politicians and anyone else they please at Harrington Lake. However, the Government doesn’t have democratic legitimacy if Parliament isn’t meeting – hence the urgent need for virtual sittings. The cliche of the smoke-filled backrooms of another era cannot simply give way to smoke-free green spaces, not without transparency and democratic accountability.

Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative critic for Finance and the National Capital Commission and former Minister of State for Democratic Reform recently posted “before and after” satellite images of Harrington Lake purportedly showing that a large building has been built on the property without the knowledge or approval of Parliament. On April 18th Poilievre tweeted, “Did Justin Trudeau build himself a brand new lakeside mansion at Harrington Lake with our money?”

In an effort to solidify its own message on the COVID-19 outbreak, the federal government appears to be considering bringing in a new law that would fight misinformation, and disinformation on COVID-19. So says Dominic LeBlanc, who is currently the President of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada and a former Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in Trudeau’s cabinet. Apparently, this “false information” cuts quite a wide swath, encompassing everything from quack cures to cyber-crime, malicious foreign state actors, and so-called conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus.The feds seem to be impervious both to the legal requirements of democracy and the evolving science on COVID-19. The prospect for overreach in this scenario can’t be overstated and is a compelling reason for Parliamentarians to get back to work as soon as possible. 

“We’re concerned when this government starts talking about free speech issues,” Scheer says. “They’ve got a terrible history over the past few years of proposing ideas that would infringe upon free speech.”

By: Deborah Rankin – [email protected]

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