Conservatives say they're against decision to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for MPs
OTTAWA -- The federal Conservatives—the only caucus yet to confirm how many of its MPs remain unvaccinated—have come out in opposition to the new mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy announced by the House of Commons.
The decision to implement a vaccine mandate was made on Tuesday by the Board of Internal Economy, a cross-party committee of nine MPs in House leadership roles, including Conservatives. It will require anyone entering the House of Commons precinct to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Nov. 22, when the 44th Parliament kicks off.
The Conservatives say that they don’t think it should be up to a committee of MPs to decide who can and cannot enter spaces on Parliament Hill, though the committee has historically overseen the workings of the House of Commons.
“While we encourage everyone who can be vaccinated to get vaccinated, we cannot agree to seven MPs, meeting in secret, deciding which of the 338 MPs, just elected by Canadians, can enter the House of Commons to represent their constituents,” said Conservative whip Blake Richards in a statement.
Richards is one of the two Conservative members on the board, which held a closed-door meeting on Tuesday.
While what happens in-camera at parliamentary committee meetings is not meant to be discussed publicly, Richard’s statement suggests that the decision was most likely approved by the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois, whose caucuses are all fully vaccinated.
The once historically secretive board of MPs held its first open door meeting on October 2017 after the Liberals promised to make the body that governs MPs’ spending, approves House budgets, manages employment and other House administration matters, open by default.
According to the Parliament of Canada Act, the Board meets in camera for a range of reasons, including if the matters being discussed relate to security, employment, staff relations, or if all of the members of the Board who are present agree that it be held behind closed doors.
There will be limited exemptions offered to those with medical contraindications to the COVID-19 vaccines, with the requirement to show proof of a recent negative antigen test in order to enter the buildings that make up the House of Commons precinct.
Much like the party’s position during the federal election campaign, the Conservatives say that rapid tests should be offered to those who have chosen not to get vaccinated.
“I can’t discuss what happens at an in camera meeting but I will say that we’ve always said that vaccines are most important tool to get us out of this pandemic. As we said during the election, workplace health and safety can be assured through vaccination or the demonstration of a recent negative rapid test result,” Richards said in his statement.
In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play, Richards was unable to say how many of the 118 Conservative MPs are vaccinated.
“I think it's really up to each individual Canadian, including members of Parliament, to decide for themselves whether they want to disclose their personal health information,” he said.
Given the timing of this order coming into effect, it’s possible unvaccinated Conservatives would not be able to enter the House of Commons next month unless they have a valid exemption.
The details of how this new policy will be enforced have yet to be articulated.
In addition to MPs, the policy applies to MPs’ Ottawa staff, political research office employees, administration employees, members of the parliamentary press gallery, parliamentary business visitors, contractors and consultants who want to come into any of the several buildings that hold the House chamber, MPs’ offices, press conference spaces, and committee meeting rooms.
In announcing the mandate, House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota said that the decision to impose the policy was taken “to meet ongoing recommendations from public health authorities to help limit the spread of COVID-19 within the work environment.”
It’s unclear what the Conservative Party’s next steps will be in terms of challenging the decision or trying to make a case that this move, while supported by the majority of their colleagues, is considered an infringement on their individual parliamentary privileges. However, the House does also have collective rights.
"There's a difference between parliamentary privilege, which is meant to ensure vigorous and free and open debate… versus some sort of parliamentary entitlement or double standard,” said Liberal MP Arif Virani on CTV News Channel’s Power Play.
HYBRID SITTINGS RETURNING?
Talks continue about whether or not a hybrid House of Commons setup— allowing MPs to virtually vote and participate from their homes or offices— will be revived for the upcoming session.
The vaccine mandate could now be a deciding factor, though already there is division among the parties over whether the hybrid component is still needed.
The Liberals and NDP have signalled an intent to push for continued use of the hybrid format, while the Conservatives and Bloc no longer want the virtual option made available.
“We are supportive of continuing to have hybrid sittings of the House,” said Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez’s spokesperson Simon Ross in a statement. “Hybrid sittings allow for flexibility for MPs to adapt to changing circumstances of COVID-19 across the country.”
Richards said that he’s hopeful the Conservatives will “appeal to reason,” and find a way to allow all MPs to participate in-person.
NDP House Leader Peter Julian said the Conservative’s position—of opposing the vaccine mandate but also wanting to do away with the hybrid format that would allow them to keep participating remotely—is “strange.”
“On the one hand, you have Conservatives saying ‘well, we shouldn't be subject to that’… But on the other hand they're also saying that they don't want to have the virtual tools that allow members of Parliament to participate fully, regardless of their circumstances including a member of Parliament that has to be in quarantine,” he said on CTV News Channel’s Power Play. “We believe all MPs should be participating. We've got the virtual tools that cost millions of dollars to develop.”
When the hybrid sitting format was rolled out—before vaccines were approved, let alone widely available—it was framed as a temporary solution allowing for altered sittings that accommodated the needed public health precautions.
Should MPs decide to continue with allowing a virtual component to House proceedings, a new deal would need to be struck and those talks are expected to ramp up after the new federal cabinet is unveiled.
The federal government’s vaccine mandate for the “core” federal public service that was announced earlier this month applies whether employees work remotely or from the office.
TRUDEAU TALKS TO OPPOSITION
Over the last two days, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had conversations with opposition leaders ahead of Parliament’s return.
He spoke with Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet on Tuesday, and had meetings scheduled with Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Green Party Parliamentary Leader Elizabeth May on Wednesday.
According to a statement issued following their meeting, O’Toole’s office said that the Conservative leader asked the prime minister to “stop using vaccines as a political wedge tool and to prioritize addressing the issue of vaccine hesitancy,” something he said his caucus will have more to say on in the coming weeks.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, during the meeting Trudeau “emphasized the need for all members of Parliament in the House of Commons to be fully vaccinated.”