OTTAWA — The Conservatives’ bid to have Parliament sit in person several times a week throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been thwarted by the combined forces of the governing Liberals and other opposition parties.
A government motion calling for the House of Commons to meet in person once a week — to be supplemented by virtual sittings and more virtual committee meetings — was passed Monday by a vote of 22-15.
A Conservative amendment to hold three in-person sittings each week was defeated by the same margin, with the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, New Democrat and Green MPs voting against it.
The motion was proposed after the Conservatives refused during a week of negotiations to give unanimous consent to the government’s proposal, triggering the return of the Commons with a small contingent of MPs on Monday.
Absent unanimity, Parliament was sent back to its normal routine, as that’s what MPs agreed would happen when they decided in mid-March to adjourn until April 20 as the country began locking down to stop the spread of the virus.
MPs spent several hours Monday debating adjustments to that routine, with the Liberals turning the deal they’d reached last week with the Bloc Quebecois and NDP into a government motion that needed only majority support from the small quorum of MPs present.
They also spent hours questioning the government about its response to the pandemic and devoted considerable time to expressing their condolences over the weekend massacre in Nova Scotia, which left 19 dead, including an RCMP officer.
The government motion suspends all regular sittings of the House of Commons until May 25.
Instead, there will be one in-person sitting with a small number of MPs each week. Starting next week, there will also be one virtual sitting, with a second weekly virtual sitting to be added in May once the House of Commons administration has time to work out the logistics and technical details.
The in-person sitting will allow opposition MPs two hours and 15 minutes to question Trudeau and his ministers; the virtual sittings will allow 90 minutes for questions. Combined, one in-person and one virtual sitting each week will give opposition MPs the same amount of time they would normally get to question the government were the Commons sitting five days a week.
The government has also agreed to strike a special COVID-19 committee that will meet virtually twice a week and has added the Indigenous affairs committee to the six other Commons committees that have already been meeting virtually for several weeks.
Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez said having in-person sittings more than once a week would increase the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus, and argued that the government motion made sense for unprecedented times.
“We have found the balance between allowing Parliament to play its fundamental role, which we cherish … while respecting what we ourselves have been saying to the Canadian public, which is to isolate as much as possible,” he said.
At his daily morning briefing, Trudeau also defended the government’s proposal.
“It is really important for me that we continue to uphold our democracy, our democratic principles, the principles of accountability, the ability to move forward with new legislation to help Canadians. That really matters. But it really matters that we do so responsibly,” he said.
Not all ministers, however, seemed to be following chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam’s advice that it’s reasonable to wear a mask when keeping physical distance is not possible. Some ministers arriving Monday on Parliament Hill in their government cars were not wearing masks. Neither were their drivers.
Alex Wellstead, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, said all MPs have been reminded to take the precautions advised by public health experts, where possible. He said the fact that some ministers were not wearing masks demonstrates why it would be a bad idea to hold multiple in-person sittings of the Commons.
Parliament has met twice, with reduced numbers, to pass emergency aid legislation since it was adjourned on March 13, and some MPs had argued that voting on any subsequent emergency bills would be the only reason for them to be physically present in the Commons.
Indeed, Green MP Paul Manly asked Commons Speaker Anthony Rota to protect the rights and privileges of MPs by suspending sittings until further notice. Rota eventually ruled that it was not up to him to override agreements approved by MPs on how the House should function during the crisis.
Prior to the vote, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer insisted that debate and discussion in the House of Commons are of urgent importance.
The Liberals, he said, must answer questions on issues ranging from the state of the nation’s medical-goods stockpile to accountability for the billions of dollars being spent in federal aid.
“Right here on Parliament Hill, construction workers are continuing to renovate Centre Block, a project that is expected to take at least 10 years,” he said.
“If they can safely renovate the building that houses our Parliament than surely we can do our duty to uphold the bedrock of our democracy.”
But Scheer’s view was not supported by any of the other opposition parties.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said virtual sittings each week are preferable. They would not only minimize contact, but also make sure people in regions far from Ottawa would be able to take part in questioning the government, he said.
“It’s important to hear voices from parliamentarians across this country,” Singh said.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet accused the Conservatives of holding Parliament “hostage” for partisan reasons, and said he wants to get on with the business of serving Canadians and the people of Quebec.
The Senate has adjourned until at least June 2, though several committees have plans to meet virtually and the full body can be recalled if legislation needs to be passed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2020.
Joan Bryden and Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press