Day before throne speech, return of Parliament and voting plan still being sorted out
OTTAWA -- Parliament is coming back on Wednesday, the leaders of the two largest opposition parties are in isolation due to COVID-19 infections, the national capital is experiencing a second wave of the virus, and MPs are still working out how the hybrid virtual sitting and voting will work.
The new session of Parliament will be kicking off with the Liberal minority government's throne speech on Wednesday — read by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette — during a pared-down in-person ceremony that triggers a series of procedural steps to start the new sitting.
It's these details — how a first-ever regular House sitting with all the usual bells and whistles like opposition days and private members' business works with dozens, if not hundreds, of MPs participating from home — that are still being finalized now less than 12 hours from the scheduled start of the new session.
The Conservatives say they've yet to reach an agreement on the sitting because they want a commitment from the Liberals to restart all committee work from the last session, including various probes into the WE Charity student grant controversy.
"Committees must be working as soon as possible," Conservative House Leader Gerard Deltell told CTVNews.ca, adding that while his caucus understands that in the last few weeks the pandemic situation has changed, the concerns about spread on the Hill has to be balanced with MPs having the ability to hold the government to account at this crucial time.
"COVID is a temporary situation and we have to use some temporary tools," he said.
On Monday, MPs participated in a test organized by the House of Commons Speakers' office of how a virtual vote would run, with the process taking much longer to complete than some had anticipated, and far longer than most votes in-person usually are. According to unimpressed Conservative MPs, the trial run had hiccups and took nearly an hour and a half, when votes can usually happen within 15 minutes in the chamber.
The House of Commons is also testing an app for voting that would likely be quicker, but less formal than the Zoom voting.
In a statement to CTVNews.ca, House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota’s office said that more than 245 MPs participated in the test vote on Monday, and that “lessons learned from the simulation will be incorporated,” into future votes, and that the House administration will proceed with any decisions MPs take on how the second session of the 43rd Parliament will operate.
Over the course of the last six months prior to prorogation, the House sat in a truncated and sometimes hybrid setting with some MPs participating virtually through Zoom and others sitting at a distance or wearing masks when they were in close proximity for votes to pass emergency legislation. In those instances, only MPs who attended in-person could vote, though agreements were often struck to unanimously agree on moving through business without requiring a vote.
Last week, in voicing his support for adopting remote voting following his cabinet retreat, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that MPs should still be able to fulfill their parliamentary duties, including participating in confidence votes, even if they have to be away from the Chamber for public health reasons.
"We're moving forward on ensuring that our democracy continues to be fully functional in a way that doesn't put MPs their families, or their communities at risk," Trudeau said last week.
The discussion as to how the fall sitting will be structured have been ongoing over the summer.
“The responsibility lies clearly at the feet of the government. They have known that this is an important thing, they have access to all the briefings that have made it very clear that we need to be able to have a hybrid Parliament, and they've known this for months. It's not a surprise, it's not like this date snuck up on us,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on Tuesday. “We need to get to work.”
All sides have agreed that the ongoing COVID-19 spread means that it's not safe for all 338 MPs to gather in-person in Ottawa for the fall sitting, and so most parties have planned out caucus rotations that will allow MPs to take turns being on Parliament Hill.
"We'll be doing rotating shifts with quarantine… so that there isn’t any possibility of the virus being spread," said NDP House Leader Peter Julian in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
"It's a temporary measure that I hope we will no longer need… with hopefully an end of the pandemic or the development of a vaccine," Julian said.
His caucus is supportive of the virtual voting plan, so long as MPs’ retain their regular powers such as compelling the government to turn over documents.
The focus on working out a plan to vote remotely was given new urgency last week when Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet announced they had both tested positive for COVID-19.
Plans are still being made for how the two will respond to Wednesday's speech from isolation, and this detail is said to be part of the talks still ongoing.
Ahead of their in-person caucus meeting on Tuesday, Conservative caucus members said they feel comfortable with the health and safety precautions being implemented. The Liberal caucus is also meeting ahead of the throne speech, but is doing so virtually.
"If kids can go back to school, MPs can be in Parliament, and I think it's our responsibility to be here," said Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs.
All items of parliamentary business were wiped away when Trudeau prorogued Parliament last month, declaring his desire for a reset to refocus the government's long-term agenda on rebuilding from the economic and social impact of the pandemic. Now, with cases climbing that plan to rebuild has pivoted to reprioritize COVID-19 emergency response plans.
THRONE SPEECH POMP PARED-DOWN
The throne speech is expected to get underway mid-afternoon Wednesday, following a pared-down and physically-distant procession from West Block to the Senate Chamber including the usual parliamentary officials.
Inside the Senate Chamber, where the speech is read, attendance will be sparse. As part of the pandemic precautions, the number of in-person attendees is being limited to a smattering of MPs and Senators, with the others being asked to tune in from their offices. The public viewing galleries will also be closed, with the exception of a handful of press gallery reporters being granted access.
There will also be no special guests present, according to a memo sent to parliamentarians from the Usher of the Black Rod Greg Peters, a senior protocol officer in Parliament who is responsible for Senate security. This means the floor of the Chamber will appear sparse without the full roster of Supreme Court justices and former parliamentarians who are usually seated there.
"In both the planning and the eventual realization of a ceremony of state of this magnitude and historical significance, the health and safety of all those involved have been of the utmost importance," read Peters' memo in part.
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