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As MPs consider future of hybrid sittings, 'big picture' considerations needed, Speaker says

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As MPs kicked off a study on the future of the House of Commons' use of a hybrid sitting structure, Speaker Anthony Rota is calling for members of Parliament to consider the "big picture" in making their recommendations as to whether it's time to retire the virtual elements of proceedings that were ushered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) began a review of the hybrid sitting model, hearing from top House of Commons officials as well as MPs current and past on the utilization of the hybrid model and voting app to see what worked, or didn't, in the context of potentially maintaining these measures long-term.

The study was requested as part of the government's motion that locked in hybrid provisions—allowing MPs to continue to participate virtually in debates and committee meetings, as well as vote remotely from anywhere in Canada—through 2023, pending the PROC's findings and the state of the pandemic. 

While the provisions remain in place, giving MPs the option to participate remotely, by and large the majority of elected federal officials have been showing up in person in the House of Commons since the fall sitting began in September. The House of Commons eased off on COVID-19 public health measures, such as the vaccine and mask mandates, at the end of the spring sitting. 

During his testimony, Rota spoke of both the flexibility the hybrid format has allowed as well as the challenges it has presented both technically and for decorum, telling his colleagues that there are some "big picture questions" the committee may want to explore as part of this review.

"For example, should the House continue to allow remote participations for all members in any situation at any time? Or should this option be available under specific circumstances that the House will define? And, will these provisions apply differently in the chamber, in committees, or in other parliamentary activities?" Rota said. "For example, if the House retains its use of the electronic voting app, can the video conferencing system be maintained and used as a backup?"

Coming out in support of pursuing "parameters" under which MPs could opt to continue participating remotely should the hybrid structure be upheld, Rota said he doesn't think deciding to not fly or drive to Ottawa should be something MPs do "willy-nilly," rather something used in cases of illness or other special circumstances.

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 nearly 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. There's also the extensive impact on parliamentary interpreters and as a result, constraining committee schedules.

There have also been accusations of ministers dodging in-person questioning by Zooming in from Ottawa rather than showing up in the Chamber in person. That's become a less prevalent concern as more public health rules have been lifted.

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.

MPS SPLIT ON WHETHER TO END HYBRID

During Tuesday's meeting, some MPs made their positions clear on both sides of the issue, including a few who shared their personal experiences.

Testifying before the PROC, Liberal MP from British Columbia Parm Bains shared with his colleagues how hybrid Parliament has allowed him to still do his job as an MP while receiving dialysis and later recovering from a kidney transplant.

"The hybrid provisions are vital to the pressures caused by uncontrollable long absences from Ottawa," he said. "The hybrid provisions allowed me to fulfill my parliamentary obligations, limit my exposure, maintain strong mental health, and reduce the fears my family had as they supported me through my health journey."

During the hearing some Conservative MPs spoke about their reservations about continuing with the hybrid format as something that would appear to be making their working lives easier while many Canadians are struggling. The federal Conservative caucus was generally strongly against maintaining the virtual provisions heading into the fall sitting.

Conservative MP from Saskatchewan Rosemarie Falk cautioned her colleagues about the ramifications of "setting a precedent of working while you're sick," and said that in her experience as a mom attempting hybrid House of Commons work, she often found family obligations and local events were competing for her time.

"There seems to be an expectation that because you are physically present, you can do all of these and that you can do it to your fullest. And I would say in reality, that is actually to the detriment of us executing our parliamentary responsibilities," Falk said.

Though during the hearing, two former Conservative MPs, Dona Cadman and Leo Duguay, both suggested there could be merits in maintaining hybrid provisions as an option for MPs, citing their experiences with long commutes to their riding, personal sacrifices made to be in Ottawa, and the evolutions with technology since their time in the House, as factors.

The NDP are largely supportive of continuing hybrid sittings, with British Columbia MP Laurel Collins advocating for making the format permanent, saying that hybrid sittings allowed her to keep working while in the final months of her pregnancy. 

"Not every woman wants to do that, but every woman deserves the choice and women deserve the choice to participate," Collins said, noting she also was able to participate in Parliament as a result of hybrid when she contracted COVID-19, and when her father died.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you want more young women to enter politics, if you want more women to stay in politics, make Parliament more family-friendly. And hybrid Parliament is a tangible way to do that," Collins said.

New Democrats are calling for the hybrid format to be "strengthened," citing a need to ensure more accountability requirements for the government, as well as to ensure interpreter and translation resources are not continuously strained.

The PROC is expected to continue its study in the coming weeks, and is welcoming feedback from additional MPs before reporting back to the House of Commons with its recommendations.

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