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O'Toole says caucus will both respect and challenge House vaccine policy

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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says that his caucus has agreed to “respect and abide by” the new rules mandating vaccination in the House of Commons, but at the “earliest opportunity” his party will be challenging the policy decided by a board of MPs.

“A question of privilege will be raised in the House of Commons to challenge the improper conduct and precedent set,” O’Toole said. “Only the House of Commons itself can determine its composition and its conduct."

The decision to implement a vaccine mandate was made on Oct. 19 by the Board of Internal Economy, a long-standing cross-party committee of nine MPs in House leadership roles, including Conservatives.

It will require anyone entering buildings in the House of Commons precinct, including the Chamber, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Nov. 22 when the 44th Parliament kicks off.

O’Toole says that when the new session begins, only fully vaccinated Conservatives or those with valid medical exemptions who have been recently rapid-tested will be taking part in the House proceedings in-person next month.

“Both before the Speaker or House rules, and after they rule, the entire Conservative caucus will respect and abide by all the rules and all health guidance,” O’Toole said. “We respect our Parliament, we respect our rules, we respect the ability to keep all Canadians safe, and I encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” said the Conservative leader.

O’Toole will have to wait until the new session begins to bring forward this challenge, after the election of the next Speaker and the speech from the throne.

It’ll likely start with an MP rising with their question of privilege—an opportunity for MPs to raise a concern that they’ve been impeded in fulfilling their duty — at which point the Speaker will consider the matter and likely get back to the House at a later date with a decision.

“Parliamentary privilege” also includes a series of collective rights for the House of Commons to conduct its work.

With the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois all fully vaccinated and seemingly fully supportive of the vaccinate mandate, it remains to be seen how far the coming Conservative challenge to the Speaker will get.

The Conservatives have previously said that they don’t think it should be up to a committee of MPs -- one that governs MPs’ spending, approves House budgets, manages employment and other House administration matters -- to decide who can and cannot enter spaces on Parliament Hill.

The Senate is responsible for setting its own rules. Despite O’Toole stating Wednesday that the ruling his caucus is taking issue with applies to both chambers, a vaccine mandate has not been implemented in the Senate at this point, according to Alison Korn, a spokesperson for the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration.

“With regard to a staff vaccine policy, the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration (CIBA) will be carefully examining its approach and any decisions will be announced in due course,” Korn said. “With respect to senators themselves, a decision is anticipated before the return of the Senate.”

CAUCUS MET TO DELIBERATE

After a few weeks of conflicting messaging on the party’s position on the mandate, O’Toole met behind closed doors with his caucus on Wednesday where this issue was discussed and according to the leader, coming out of it, the caucus was “united” on this approach.

The Conservatives are the only caucus that have yet to confirm how many of their 118 MPs remain unvaccinated, suggesting rapid testing should be a more widely-used option for those who choose not to roll up their sleeves.

While few MPs stopped to speak with reporters following Wednesday’s meeting other than to say that the caucus was united and looking forward towards their main focus of holding Trudeau accountable, caucus members had more to say on their way in to the closed-door discussion.

“I have not disclosed my health status to anybody,” said Alberta MP Glen Motz, who called “the whole issue a distraction.”

“You can draw your own inference by my ability to enter the House of Commons,” he said.

Alberta MP Ron Liepert said he understands that some of his colleagues have privacy concerns, but he has no issues disclosing that he is fully vaccinated.

“We don't have the luxury of sitting here as an opposition party arguing about whether you should be vaccinated or not. We should be doing what constituents ended up sending us to do,” he said.

Asked whether he was confident that all Conservatives will be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, Ontario MP Michael Barrett said he will see once that day comes. “I’ll certainly be there. I’m double vaccinated.”

CONSERVATIVES AGAINST HYBRID

A decision awaits on whether a hybrid element will be re-instated for this new session. If it is, it’ll allow MPs—including those who may be unvaccinated—to continue participating in debates and votes, remotely.

In contrast, 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.

As things stand, both the Conservatives and Bloc are against re-instating what were initially meant to be temporary and pandemic-prompted hybrid sittings, though the Liberals and New Democrats still feel there is merit in allowing members of Parliament to represent their ridings, from their ridings.

“We will not let Mr. Trudeau avoid scrutiny by hiding behind a virtual Parliament. We want to see Parliament return as normal,” O’Toole said Wednesday. “Conservatives want to see a return of Parliament and its committees to normal.”

“I have great faith that they will come around,” said new Government House Leader Mark Holland on Wednesday on the Conservative’s vaccine mandate position. “We've been able to work through in the past Parliament getting to a hybrid system, we've been able to get work through the electronic voting. Both of those things they were against, and they came around.”

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.”

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.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the Conservative position elitist.

“Somehow the Conservatives, the Official Opposition of Canada thinks they deserve to be treated differently than everyday Canadians. Pretty elite of them, and pretty disconnected from reality. We should be showing leadership and getting vaccinated,” he said.

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