Voting by app, streaming the throne speech: How COVID-19 is upending parliamentary tradition
Governor General Julie Payette delivers the Throne Speech in the Senate chamber, Thursday December 5, 2019 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
OTTAWA -- Next Wednesday’s throne speech will look and run differently than the last one due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as parliamentary officials are putting in place a host of new safety precautions. Meanwhile, MPs are negotiating over the potential launch of voting through an app, which would be a historic first if pursued.
These are just some of the layers of complications COVID-19 is adding to the resumption of Parliament, as the threat of the virus and its rising cases continue to be a main preoccupation for the federal government.
In a memo to parliamentarians obtained by CTV News, the Usher of the Black Rod Greg Peters — a senior protocol officer in Parliament who is responsible for Senate security — spelled out some of the ways that the Sept. 23 throne speech in the Senate will be altered for safety reasons.
This includes limiting the number of in-person attendees who will be allowed in the Senate chamber, and requiring physical distancing between procession participants.
“The upcoming Speech from the Throne will differ from the ceremony held in December 2019,” wrote Peters. “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.”
Instead of MPs piling into buses for a short drive from West Block to the Senate of Canada building, most are being asked to watch the speech from their offices as it will be streamed by the in-house parliamentary TV service. Similarly, only some Senators will be in attendance in-person.
There will also be no special guests present, according to Peters’ memo, meaning the usual dignitaries and former politicians that usually attend, will also be asked to tune in from home.
Speaking with reporters at the cabinet retreat on Monday, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said he’s working out an agreement with the opposition House leaders to determine who will represent each party in the Senate chamber for the speech, which will be read by Governor General Julie Payette.
Citing the health of MPs and staff, he said he’s confident the parties can agree on the number of MPs that will attend.
Next Wednesday’s throne speech will be the second time that a throne speech will be delivered in the temporary Senate chamber, a former train station.
For the 2019 throne speech launching this Parliament, MPs boarded buses to take them the few blocks down Wellington Street from the Commons to the Senate for the ceremonies. Typically the ceremony includes MPs taking two trips between the House and Senate.
They are first summoned briefly to be informed they need to elect a Speaker, and then afterwards to summon them to the Senate for the throne speech. This summoning happens by the Usher of the Black Rod, who also acts as the personal messenger of the Governor General.
Historically, once in the Senate chamber, MPs have to stay behind the brass bar to view the speech, but it remains to be seen whether that tradition will need to be modified to allow for the proper spacing between people.
VOTING WITH AN APP?
The ongoing pandemic is also complicating the resumption of the House of Commons and Senate. While regular sittings from a procedural standpoint are set to resume, the modifications coming to allow for the required public health measures for the duration of the fall session have yet to be ironed out, given the full roster of 338 MPs cannot safely all be in the Chamber at once as it’s currently designed.
Over the course of the last six months prior to prorogation, the House has sat in a truncated and sometimes hybrid setting with some MPs participating virtually through Zoom and others sitting spaced out and wearing masks when they’re near others. However, there has yet to be an agreement on changing the rules of the House to allow for remote voting, which the Liberals are currently pushing for.
Specifically they are trying to garner support for a hybrid model that would allow both the current in-person as well as a new virtual voting option which, if approved, would be a historic first for Parliament, that comes with a series of logistical, procedural, and security questions.
The current suggestion is a new app developed by the House of Commons, which is currently being tested.
“While it's being tested, we can vote by Zoom, like is being done in B.C. So right away next week, we could start voting in the hybrid model,” he said.
Given the entirety of the Bloc Quebecois caucus is currently in isolation, there is also a pressing practical voting consideration: setting in place a way that each MP can have their voice heard, even if they aren’t able to be in the Chamber, Rodriguez argued.
“They've been elected democratically across the country and we should all be able to vote… In my opinion, it's not the MPs that have been selected by a whip that should be only be able to vote, but all MPs respecting the democratic will of the people,” he said.
On Tuesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he’s supportive of the hybrid model that allows MPs to participate from their ridings, limiting the number of MPs in the Chamber.
“I think we need to be very vigilant here in Ottawa as members of Parliament, that we are not in any way increasing the risk, given the fact that lots of folks come together in one space, there's a high risk of spreading and potentially increasing numbers and we don't want to do that,” Singh said.
In the spring, the Conservatives suggested a series of alternative in-person ways to allow MPs to vote in rounds or phases while still requiring politicians to be present for their vote to be counted. The Conservatives proposed using the courtyard space outside of the Chamber as place to hold votes; allow shift voting seeing smaller cohorts vote in waves; and using a paper ballot where MPs could submit their votes on a series of matters at once.
The way forward will need to be ironed out in time for the start of the session because, in the first hours following the throne speech, there will be a series of key procedural steps that need to unfold before MPs dig in to what can be up to six days of debate on the contents of the speech before that key vote.