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Hybrid sittings are here to stay as House passes sweeping rule changes


The House of Commons will be continuing to sit in a hybrid fashion for the foreseeable future, after the majority of MPs voted to pass the Liberals' plan to make what started as a pandemic workaround, a permanent feature of how Parliament works.

After more than 12 hours of debate this week, MPs voted—many virtually—171 to 137 in favour of forging ahead with a series of permanent changes to the rules that govern the House, otherwise known as the Standing Orders.

Government House Leader Mark Holland presented Parliament with the 25-page proposal on June 8, detailing more than 50 changes to the Standing Orders in order to allow MPs to continue participating remotely in debates and committee meetings.

The changes also allow for the continuance of the Commons-developed electronic voting application that allows MPs to vote remotely from anywhere in Canada, with verification measures. 

Other changes will codify existing practices of the House, such as how members are recognized, their decorum requirements, how documents such as reports and petitions can be presented electronically, and scheduling adjustments regarding the timing and processing of votes.

The package of reforms do not dictate how many days MPs have to appear in-person, nor does the House have capacity limits, so if every MP still wants to show up in-person, they can.

To accommodate MPs participating remotely when hybrid first became a reality, large screens were placed on either side of the Speaker’s chair in the Chamber to broadcast whomever is speaking, whether in-person or at home, to the House. Those now, are expected to become a permanent feature.

"I know in my heart that 100, or 1,000 years from now, the changes we are putting in the Standing Orders will continue," Holland said during the opening day of debate on his proposal in the House on June 12.

The Liberal point-person in the Commons said that while another government could walk the new rules back, he's confident they won't because he's heard directly from MPs of all stripes about "how these provisions have been a total game-changer for them, their families, and their ability to do their jobs."

"One of the arguments made is that members of Parliament will not show up, that we are going to see Ottawa be empty… but the work of Parliament has continued. Committees have met. The House has met. The work of Parliament has been conducted, and it has been conducted very well," he said.

This major change to decades of parliamentary tradition comes after the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) recommended the hybrid structure and electronic voting system should become the new way of doing things, with some caveats. 

In considering keeping what was meant to be a temporary COVID-19 measure but over the last few years become a mainstay through a series of time-limited agreements, MPs on the committee heard from current and former parliamentarians, as well as international parliamentary officials.

In voicing their opposition to keeping virtual participation options in Parliament despite availing themselves of these features alongside all other parties, the Conservatives have said they think the House is going "too far, too fast" calling the move a Liberal swerve on scrutiny.

The Official Opposition attempted to amend the Liberal proposal to scrap or tweak certain rule changes while seeking to have others expire one year after the opening of the next Parliament.

The Conservatives also wanted to see PROC do more research on the audio standards and how technical difficulties with remote voting are addressed when they arise, but their motion to do so did not pass, despite receiving the backing of Bloc Quebecois MPs.

"There is a lot of important work that gets done in the parliamentary precinct outside of the official proceedings of a committee or the House of Commons. This work is lost when ministers are able to literally phone in," said Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer in the House on June 12.

While the use of the electronic elements decreased as pandemic restrictions eased, a core argument from those supportive of sticking with hybrid, is having the flexibility to participate virtually has allowed them to be in two places at once: available to their constituents and families at important moments, as well as able to participate in proceedings in Ottawa. It has also been suggested that offering MPs the ability to forego what for some are extensive commutes, could attract more people to political life.

"If Parliament reflects the country, what we are trying to do is open the doors to people who have families, people who come from communities that are not represented or are under-represented in the House of Commons," said NDP House Leader Peter Julian during the opening day of debate. The New Democrats voted with the Liberals in favour of keeping the hybrid model.

During the three years of its use, however, 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 virtual participation becoming an option, MPs did find ways to have their votes counted if they could not be present through procedural measures like pairing votes. They did not have the ability to participate in debate without being in the Chamber in-person.

One of the outstanding issues connected to the influx of virtual parliamentary work, both in the House and at committees, is the impact it has had on interpreters.

MPs have called on the federal government to take steps to see how the system can be improved, and whether additional interpreters can be recruited, in response, the Liberals have vowed to ensure "critical interpretation services are available" to all MPs "while ensuring a healthy and effective workforce."

The House administration has already taken measures meant to protect interpreters, including mandating the use of high-quality headsets.

The current hybrid sitting agreement expires on the last scheduled day of this sitting, Friday June 23. The revised version of the House rules will come into effect the next day, meaning when the fall sitting starts, MPs could partake from home.




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