With leaders of two opposition parties in isolation, virtual voting needed: PM
OTTAWA -- With the federal leaders of two of the opposition parties currently in self-isolation due to potential COVID-19 exposures, it’s important that the House of Commons adopt a way to vote virtually, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
On Wednesday the Conservatives announced that Leader Erin O’Toole and his family are getting tested for COVID-19 after a member of his staff that was recently travelling with him, tested positive. On Tuesday, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet entered self-isolation and will also be getting tested, after his wife was confirmed positive for COVID-19.
Citing these situations, Trudeau told reporters during his post-cabinet meeting press conference that all MPs should still be able to fulfill their duties as MPs even if they have to be away from the Chamber for public health reasons, especially with the series of key confidence votes coming in the days and weeks ahead.
He said it would “extremely unfair” to not find a way to have MPs in remote or high-risk COVID-19 regions be able to speak up on behalf of their constituents.
“That's why we're going to be moving forward with a form of distance voting that will allow every parliamentarian to make sure that their community is heard, as we move forward on important measures,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister brushed aside questions of delaying the throne speech and resumption of Parliament, which is currently slated for next Wednesday, Sept. 23. He said resuming the House of Commons is important, ahead of what’s shaping up to be a second spike in COVID-19 cases across the country, so that key legislation can be introduced and passed as needed in the months coming.
But what’s clear, Trudeau said, was that it’s still not safe for there to be the full roster of 338 MPs to be physically present in the House at one time, as is currently needed to conduct regular votes.
Discussions have been ongoing among the government and the opposition parties as to how the new House of Commons sitting will run. Trudeau said his government will continue to push for the resumption of the hybrid virtual and in-person structure, and will look to get another party to come on-side with adding the virtual voting component.
“We are going to move forward with a hybrid situation; it has worked very well through the spring months, where people are both physically in the Chamber and are represented through video conference,” he said. “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.”
If approved, remote voting would be a historic first for Parliament, one 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, but in the interim Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez has suggested voting by Zoom, allowing each MP participating to essentially be counted, from their screens.
While the NDP have indicated their support for the hybrid model, throughout the pandemic the Conservatives have opposed the idea of remote voting. In the spring, they 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.
"We do support the idea of a virtual Parliament," Conservative MP Karen Vecchio told host Evan Solomon during Wednesday's episode of CTV Power Play.
"When we start talking about voting, that’s a little bit different," Vecchio added, acknowledging that her party understands they can't have all 338 members in the House of Commons at the same time.
She said the Conservatives don't want to force MPs to travel from all across the country to vote in the House of Commons.
"We want to make sure that we're looking at other opportunities, and we will continue to negotiate with the House leaders," said Vecchio.
NDP MP Peter Julian also weighed in during the episode. He reiterated that the NDP has been pushing for a hybrid Parliament "from the very beginning."
"The reality is, we cannot have 338 members of Parliament not just being in Ottawa together, but going across the country. For many MPs, they're going through three or four airports before they get between their riding and Ottawa," Julian said, echoing Vecchio.
"We need to have a full Parliament with hybrid voting, and that means members of Parliament voting, physically distancing, some in Ottawa, but MPs participating from wherever they are across the country."
With files from CTV News' Rachel Gilmore