Covid-19: Canada parliament goes virtual during pandemic

Trudeau (centre) attends a Special Committee on the Covid-19 pandemic in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill May 13, 2020 in Ottawa, Canada as MPs practice social distancing in the empty House of Commons. — AFP

OTTAWA: Canada's parliament has gone virtual through the pandemic, assembling MPs across six time zones and giving a rare peek at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's bookcase, a deer head and a stifled opposition.

Every Tuesday and Thursday over the past month 338 Canadian MPs logged into Zoom from home to question ministers in lieu of holding a daily in-person question period.

The first sessions were marred by glitches – "Can you hear me now?" "There's an issue with the translation." "The minister is being cut off." "Please unclick your mute." "You might also hear my son, he doesn't sound too happy, in the background."

"This is a historic day," Speaker Anthony Rota said when it began, while admonishing MPs over sounds of camera clicks “not to post photos on the Internet of the screen”, as per parliamentary rules.

A few others including the British and Latvian parliaments have also gone online to limit person-to-person spreading of the Covid-19 virus.

“We cannot be vectors for the virus," New Democrat MP Peter Julien told AFP, explaining why his party pushed for this arrangement to maintain democracy in a crisis.

"The only way to ask questions on behalf of constituents and hold government accountable without endangering the public is a virtual parliament," he said.

Critics such as Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher lamented that it has diminished the role of the official opposition, while the minority Liberal government of Trudeau uses daily press briefings to discuss policy.

"It's very difficult in these mass virtual sessions to put a minister or the prime minister on the spot," Conacher said, describing the sessions as "chaotic."

He also warned of the risk of abuse if parliamentary oversight is curtailed.

Accountability and oversight

The official opposition Tories had from the start objected to the virtual confabs.

"Mr. Trudeau should not be using a pandemic to avoid accountability and oversight and should not be eliminating the role of the peoples' representatives," leader Andrew Scheer said Friday.

But the prime minister, with the backing of New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois, had said it would be irresponsible to have regular sittings while public health officials urged social distancing.

Thirty MPs also meet each Wednesday in person – striking "a balance that is yielding very good results”, Trudeau said.

No legislation except emergency spending bills have been passed during the nationwide lockdown. A ban on assault weapons was enacted by executive order after a mass shooting in Nova Scotia.

Western provinces, which elected mostly Conservatives, say they're not seeing their priorities reflected in the Liberal agenda.

And the government has racked up Can$325bil (RM1tril) in pandemic aid.

Working from home in a suburb of balmy Vancouver, Julien doesn't miss Ottawa, which had flurries this week.

"It's nice spending more time in Vancouver," he said.

But his days are longer as he deals with a surge in constituents' concerns such as job losses, and challenges of politicking by phone across 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) from coast to coast.

"When people are scattered across the world's largest democracy (geographically) it takes longer to actually get people on the phone," he said, versus walking down the hall to MPs' offices in Ottawa "for a quick face-to-face meeting."

Now, an MP in Newfoundland might start work at 8.30am local time, when it's 4am in British Columbia.

A committee report released on Friday called for setting up a "secure electronic voting system" for the virtual parliament to fully function.

It noted that Zoom also did not provide sufficient security for in-camera meetings.

Dozens of rural and northern MPs have also been unable to connect due to poor Internet.

Interpreters who translate English into French and vice versa, meanwhile, reported a steep increase in workplace injuries including acute acoustic shock and tinnitus.

Rota urged MPs to "please speak at a reasonable pace" for their sake.

‘Hostage video situation’

The speaker also chided MPs over their choice of backdrops, which should be neutral, he wrote in a letter the House affairs committee, to "ensure that what is debated and decided upon in the House remains more important than what is seen”.

A deer head, for example, was mounted on a wall behind an MP criticising the government's new gun control measures.

Another MP streamed in front of a white bedsheet, described as looking like a “hostage video situation”. It was meant to hide home renovations.

Industry Minister Navdeep Bains, a devout Sikh, actually won praise from viewers for using a painting of colourful turbans as a backdrop.

Others noted what books were on the prime minister's shelf.

This "peek inside of MPs' homes," said Julien, has "allowed Canadians to learn a bit about their personalities, it's humanising”.

Another upside: no heckling online, although one MP accused Rota of being "a little dictatorial" for threatening to mute MPs who interrupted.

In the coming days, parties will need to agree to extend the virtual parliament beyond May 25.

Some said regular sessions likely won't resume until next year.

Alternately, one MP suggested moving parliament into the NHL Senators' hockey arena, with 17,000 seats to allow social distancing. – AFP

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