Conservatives advance challenge of ruling imposing House vaccine mandate
OTTAWA -- The Conservatives have advanced their promised challenge of the ruling that imposed the House of Commons vaccine mandate.
Chief opposition whip Blake Richards raised the question of privilege on Tuesday, in one of a series of Conservative concerns raised over in their view, their rights as MPs to do their jobs are being infringed upon.
“This question of privilege doesn't relate in any way to disputing vaccines, or their very vital role in conquering the COVID 19 pandemic… What I'm questioning here is the jurisdiction of the board to be able to make that decision,” Richards said in the House of Commons, going on to cite sections of the parliamentary rulebooks in making his case.
At issue for the Conservatives is the “improper conduct and precedent set” by the Board of Internal Economy (BOIE) in deciding to implement the mandate ahead of Parliament’s return, during a closed-door meeting. The board is a long-standing cross-party committee of nine MPs in House leadership roles, including Conservatives.
“I believe that the Board of Internal Economy decision represents a major breach of the ancient privileges of this House, and in fact could set a very troublesome precedent,” Richards said, adding that it’s electors and not MPs who should be deciding who can and cannot enter the House.
The rules state that in order to enter Hill buildings, all MPs and their staff, as well as all others who work on the Hill, either have to be fully vaccinated or have a valid medical “contraindication.” In order to get inside, those with exemption have to show a recent negative test result to the House authorities who have been put in charge of confirming who is cleared to come onto the premises.
Under these parameters, only those who are unwilling to be vaccinated but not medically exempt would be unable to enter.
With the exception of a few MPs, including one who currently has COVID-19, the entire Conservative caucus was present for the opening day of the new Parliament, meaning they all have either been vaccinated or, as Leader Erin O’Toole told CTV News, “in some limited circumstance” have a medical exemption.
O’Toole had signalled back in October that this challenge was coming, amid questions at the time over how many of his caucus members remained unvaccinated.
O’Toole has said that all of his members will “respect and abide by” the rules, before and after the Speaker rules on this matter.
Re-elected House Speaker Anthony Rota told MPs he will consider the matter and get back to the House at a later date with a decision. “I believe I have enough information to determine whether it's a prima facie case,” Rota, who is chair of the BOIE, said.
If Rota finds MPs’ privileges have been breached, Richards said his party would be proposing a motion “which would allow this House directly to pronounce itself on a vaccination or test mandate for members to access the precinct.”
“Some may say that the board's decision should be upheld because it's about safety, and I agree that in pandemic times it is right that we should take appropriate precautions. However, that does not mean the rights of Parliament should just be tossed out,” said Richards.
All MPs in the Liberal, Bloc Quebecois, NDP, and Green caucuses are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and fully supportive of the mandate, so it remains to be seen how far the Conservative challenge will get.
Responding to Richard’s concerns, MPs from these parties who are also on the board voiced opposition to the Conservatives’ position.
Bloc Quebecois whip Claude DeBellefeuille called the mandate necessary given the current pandemic circumstances, and defended the authority that the Board has to make these kinds of rulings.
“This Parliament and previous parliaments have given specific instructions and bylaws to the board… to quote ‘make policy decisions to govern the use of funds, goods, services, and premises for the House, its committees, and members,’” said NDP House leader Peter Julian.
Julian also referenced the risk MPs pose both to their colleagues and their constituents given their high-travelling jobs and frequent interactions with the public.
The NDP has previously suggested that the Conservatives are out of touch for thinking there should be one set of rights for them as there are for all other Canadian adults looking to dine-in or board a plane.
“I don’t see a substance behind a question of privilege on this basis, I think this is smart, prudent public policy that was put into place by the Board of Internal Economy and it is something that should be upheld,” Julian said.
Others used the debate to bring up their discomfort with the ongoing lack of transparency from the Conservatives when it comes to being forthright about who in their caucus may be unvaccinated.
“I do not feel safe to use the opposition lobby, it's overcrowded. Even with masks we need to maintain physical distance, we need to be careful and I'm particularly vulnerable and feel vulnerable in that space, as I'm not confident that all the other people sharing it are double vaccinated,” said Green Party MP Elizabeth May. “I feel my privileges to do my work as a member of Parliament are impeded by not being able to use the opposition lobby until matters of public health and safety are completely and rigorously observed in this place.”
As part of a forthcoming motion to re-impose hybrid sittings that would see physical distancing and virtual proceedings return to the House, the government is looking to beef up the language around what would qualify as a valid medical exemption.
This move comes after concerns were raised that if there are multiple Conservatives with exemptions, it would be in Government House Leader Mark Holland’s view, “statistically improbable.”
The motion would update the board ruling to clarify that “reasons for medical exemptions follow the guidance from the Ontario Ministry of Health document entitled ‘Medical Exemptions to COVID-19 Vaccination’ and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI).”
The government motion is expected to be tabled and debated on Wednesday. The Conservatives are against reviving virtual proceedings, arguing that the Liberals have used them to evade accountability.