OTTAWA — Citing concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 spread Canada-wide, as well as hesitation over the vaccination statuses of “a few” Conservative MPs, the House of Commons voted late Thursday to revive the hybrid sitting format, meaning members of the 44th Parliament will have the option of working from home until at least late June.
The government motion proposing to reinstate the ability for MPs to participate virtually was passed 180 to 140, seeing the NDP side with the Liberals, while the Bloc Quebecois and Conservatives wanted to see a full resumption of in-person proceedings. A Conservative amendment to the motion seeking more time to scrutinize and vote on specific spending matters also passed without opposition.
The issue had been the main topic of debate in the House of Commons the first week back, which saw most of the 338 MPs descend on Ottawa for the first time in five months, with the benches in the chamber their fullest since before the pandemic.
As a result of this decision, effective Friday, MPs will be allowed to vote remotely using an app on their phones, and virtually participate from their homes or offices and still appear, via screens, inside the chamber, or at House committee meetings once those get underway in the coming weeks. There will be no capacity limit in the chamber though, so if every MP still wants to show up in-person, they can.
It’s expected there will still be some onboarding time needed for the rookies who will be taking on the remote work tools for the first time.
During the debate, battle lines were drawn over why the two sides felt that the hybrid sittings—which when created were framed as temporary and COVID-19-necessitated— continue to be needed, or not.
For those who voted in favour of continuing to allow MPs to Zoom-in to the House of Commons from home, the reasons cited repeatedly included the virus’ ongoing spread, the risk MPs may pose or face given their high rates of travel and interaction with others in close quarters, and individual members’ comfort levels or personal health situations.
“We're still in a global pandemic… There is no reason we cannot have the flexibility in our workplace to ensure that people are both in person and yes, have the opportunity to work virtually,” said Government House Leader Mark Holland during debate on Thursday.
The Liberals have also pointed to the example of Conservative MP for Beauce, Que. Richard Lehoux in why the remote option is still required. Lehoux is isolating after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, meaning he’s been unable to participate at all in the opening days of the new Parliament.
Without virtual, other MPs who may contract COVID-19 would be disenfranchised from participating, the Liberals have argued.
In contrast, those opposed to renewing hybrid sittings have said that the government has taken advantage of the virtual option to avoid scrutiny, pointed to the vaccine mandate allowing many sectors to return to more normalcy, and called out the prime minster for calling a federal election and travelling internationally for summits amid the pandemic.
“We have all struggled through poor audio, poor video, intermittent connectivity, MPs embarrassing themselves—that seemed to usually be on the government side— on screen. Missed votes, overzealous use of the mute button, and straining of resources in both the House and in committee. That's enough,” said Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay in the House.
As well, the Bloc Quebecois raised concerns over the hybrid structure remaining in place for seven months rather than opting for a more month-by-month approach to the ever-evolving pandemic situation, suggesting that if thousands of people can gather now in arenas for NHL games, 338 MPs should be able to be present in the chamber.
Responding to these concerns, Holland pledged that “ministers will be in their seats.”
“In the circumstance we are in right now, we have every intention of making sure that there is a full presence from cabinet and that cabinet ministers are present in this place and available to take questions,” he said.
NEW CRITERIA FOR UNVACCINATED MPS
The other factor brought up repeatedly in the debate over hybrid sittings was the ongoing questions over how many Conservative MPs are unvaccinated.
Under the vaccine mandate now in place on Parliament Hill, all people looking to enter buildings in the House and Senate precincts have to show proof that they are fully vaccinated, or submit a medical exemption and show proof of a recent negative test result.
While all Liberal, Bloc Quebecois, NDP and Green MPs are fully vaccinated, the Conservatives have what their House leader Gerard Deltell has described as “a few” MPs who have medical exemptions, but that all of their caucus is eligible to come to work in-person.
“At first, there was no issue with exemptions. Now that a few Conservatives have an exemption, that no longer works. Need I remind colleagues that someone in the Liberal government had an exemption at one point?” Deltell said, referring to one Liberal who has not been named, but the governing party says has since been fully vaccinated.
In calling for more transparency about what has been described as “statistically improbable,” to have multiple valid exemptions amid a caucus of 119, MPs said uncertainty over the issue contributed to their unease about continuing on in-person at full capacity.
As part of the hybrid sitting motion MPs have agreed to beef up the language around what would qualify as a valid medical exemption under the House mandate.
Now, reasons for medical exemptions will have to be in line with guidance from an Ontario Ministry of Health document entitled ‘Medical Exemptions to COVID-19 Vaccination’ and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI).”
It’s the responsibility of the House of Commons administration to assess all exemptions submitted and determine their validity.
The Conservatives are challenging the mandate, arguing that all MPs should get to vote on whether or not the policy should apply to them because in their view, they are “essential” and Canadians elected them to show up, in-person to do their jobs.
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