The Conservatives’ bid to have Parliament sit in person several times a week throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been thwarted by the combined forces of the governing Liberals and other opposition parties.
A government motion calling for once-a-week in-person sittings, to be supplemented eventually by virtual sittings, was passed Monday by a vote of 22-15.
A Conservative motion to add more in-person sittings each week was defeated by the same margin, with the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, New Democrat and Green MPs voting against it.
The motion was proposed after the Conservatives refused during a week of negotiations to give unanimous consent to the government’s proposal, triggering the return of the House of Commons with a small contingent of MPs on Monday.
Absent unanimity, Parliament was sent back to its normal routine, as that’s what MPs agreed would happen when they decided in mid-March to adjourn until April 20 as the country began locking down to stop the spread of the virus.
But MPs spent the bulk of Monday debating adjustments to that routine, with the Liberals turning the deal they’d reached with the Bloc Quebecois and NDP into a government motion that needed only majority support from the small quorum of MPs present.
The motion included the one in-person sitting a week, and also the creation of a special all-party COVID-19 committee that could meet more frequently. The House of Commons is also currently studying how to make virtual sessions work, and those would be added to the calendar when feasible.
Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez said having in-person sittings more than once a week would increase the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus, and argued that the motion made sense for unprecedented times.
“We have found the balance between allowing Parliament to play its fundamental role, which we cherish … while respecting what we ourselves have been saying to the Canadian public, which is to isolate as much as possible,” he said.
Parliament has met twice to pass emergency aid legislation since it was adjourned in March, and some had argued the only reason MPs need to be physically present in the Commons now is to vote on any subsequent legislation.
Prior to the vote, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer insisted that debate and discussion in the House of Commons are of urgent importance.
The Liberals, he said, must answer questions on issues ranging from the state of the nation’s medical-goods stockpile to accountability for the billions of dollars being spent in federal aid.
“Right here on Parliament Hill, construction workers are continuing to renovate Centre Block, a project that is expected to take at least 10 years,” he said.
“If they can safely renovate the building that houses our Parliament than surely we can do our duty to uphold the bedrock of our democracy.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said two virtual sittings of what’s known as committee of the whole — which allows MPs to ask longer questions and ministers to give more thorough answers — each week is preferable.
Those virtual sittings would not only minimize contact, but also make sure people in regions far from Ottawa would be able to question the government, he said.
“It’s important to hear voices from parliamentarians across this country,” Singh said.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet accused the Conservatives of holding Parliament “hostage” for partisan reasons, and said he wants to get to the business of serving Canadians and the people of Quebec.
The Senate has adjourned until at least June 2, though several committees have plans to meet virtually and the full body can be recalled if legislation needs to be passed.
The Canadian Press