Hybrid Parliament should be here to stay, say MPs in new report
The hybrid sitting structure and electronic voting system should become permanent features of the House of Commons, according to a new report from MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee.
In an extensive report tabled on Monday, the majority of MPs say they want to see the virtual elements of proceedings that were introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic become longstanding features of the House, with some caveats.
The hybrid sitting structure allows MPs to participate virtually in debates and committee meetings, and House of Commons administration developed an electronic voting application that allows MPs to vote remotely from anywhere in Canada, with verification measures.
The use of the electronic elements has decreased as pandemic restrictions have eased, but some MPs have advocated for the option remaining open long-term.
Committee chair Liberal MP Bardish Chagger presented the report titled "Future of Hybrid Proceedings in the House of Commons" on Monday. It spans 106 pages and contains eight main recommendations focused on ways to improve the system and address some of its biggest limitations, including the impact hybrid has had on parliamentary interpreters.
WHAT DOES THE REPORT SAY?
In addition to the overall request to keep hybrid Parliament, the committee is suggesting:
- The House administration investigate the use of simultaneous interpretation in other parliaments that have a low injury rate amongst interpreters to see how the House system can be improved;
- That an effort be made to promote the recruitment and retention of interpreters and the Translation Bureau examine the health and safety supports currently available to interpreters;
- The House roll out a series of mandatory policies meant to protect interpreters, including requiring virtually appearing witnesses at committees use high-quality headsets and have strong connections or their appearance will be rescheduled;
- That cabinet ministers consider it a "best practice" to be present in person to answer questions during question period and to testify before committees;
- That chairs and vice-chairs of committees be present in person for all committee meetings; and
- The House of Commons administration, after consultation with the whips of each party, ensure adequate audio-visual equipment is provided for virtual participants and interpreters.
"I hope all members take time to read this very invigorating report," Chagger said. As she was speaking, audio issues were being experienced inside the chamber, connected to the large screens that have been placed on either side of the Speaker’s chair to broadcast whomever is speaking, whether in person or at home, to the House.
While the House of Commons administration worked expeditiously to find innovative and historic new ways for MPs to adapt to the COVID-19 reality while keeping up with their work of debating and passing legislation, the provisions were not meant to be permanent.
As MPs have adjusted to having the option, many have spoken about how it's allowed them to essentially be two places in one: available to their constituents as well as able to participate in proceedings in Ottawa. Though, over the two years of its use, there have been several snafus and more serious transgressions associated with the hybrid-sitting model, from poor audio and video quality and connectivity issues, to MPs having to apologize for taking the debate into the toilet with them.
Prior to the pandemic-era sitting structure coming into effect, MPs did find workarounds to have their votes counted if they could not be present through procedural measures like pairing votes, but did not have the ability to participate in debate without being in the Chamber in person.
'TOO FAR, TOO FAST': CONSERVATIVES
There is not unanimity over the idea of keeping hybrid sittings, with the Conservatives coming out against the idea. Though, instead of calling for an immediate scrapping, they are recommending that the hybrid provisions stay until one year into the next Parliament, to give the House time to consider the implications.
"While there have been some benefits from some aspects of hybrid Parliament, we have undoubtedly witnessed firsthand of our shortcomings with it," said Conservative MP and committee vice-chair John Nater, presenting the Conservatives' dissenting report in the House, pointing to ministerial accountability and the toll on interpreters as examples.
He said he thinks the majority of MPs in agreement with a permanent extension of a hybrid Parliament are going "too far, too fast" and pointed to the longstanding tradition of permanent changes to the Standing Orders—the rules that govern the House of Commons—should only be done when there is consensus.
The Conservatives are recommending that, in the meantime, the House reverts to entirely in-person proceedings in the House while allowing the electronic voting app to stay up and running to allow MPs who can't be there to still ultimately have their voice heard.
They also want to see a requirement imposed that ministers and senior officials appear in person at committees.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
As it stands, the hybrid sitting structure is supposed to remain in place through June 2023, pending the committee's findings. The decision to lock the provisions for a year was made with the support of the Liberal, NDP and Green MPs last June.
Then, over the fall sitting, the committee took on this study into the future of hybrid Parliament.
As part of the committee's work, MPs heard from current and former parliamentarians, as well as international parliamentary officials and top House of Commons staff on the utilization of the hybrid model and voting app to see what worked, or didn't. Then, the committee went behind closed doors to draft a report, which was finalized just prior to the holidays.
The committee is requesting a comprehensive government response to the report, essentially putting the ball in Government House Leader Mark Holland's court.
In order for what the committee is calling for to come to fruition, it'll be on the federal Liberal minority to put forward a motion outlining more permanent changes to the Standing Orders, something they have not shied away from doing without all-party support in the past.
Holland's office told CTVNews.ca that it is taking a close look at the report and will have more to say after reviewing what MPs have recommended.