On the eve of Parliament’s return, government and opposition parties had reached a broad agreement on how the House of Commons and remote voting by Zoom would function—including making the required rule changes temporary—but details around committee work remained a sticking point, according to Bloc Québécois deputy House leader Christine Normandin.
In order for the House to adopt a hybrid system that includes remote electronic voting, it’ll require changes to the Standing Orders—something ideally, but not necessarily, done by unanimous consent. Though that proposition had previously been raised by the Liberals and sunk by Conservative opposition, Ms. Normandin (Saint-Jean, Que.) said in an interview with The Hill Times on Sept. 21 that there’s been a “shift” in the official opposition’s perspective, bringing parties closer to a working solution.
“There’s been a shift during the summer, seeing that there’s more cases, seeing that there are MPs and now party leaders have had positive results for COVID. I feel that we tend more to agree with the way we will be proceeding with remote voting,” said Ms. Normandin (Saint-Jean, Que.), noting that “some fine tuning” is still needed when it comes to how committees will operate.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet (Beloeil-Chambly, Que.) and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) have both recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Given the different time zones, for example, the early morning committee time slot would have to be rescheduled to another block during the week. During normal sittings, up to six committees could meet at the same time, she added, but technical limitations mean only four committees can meet remotely at once, so there’s a “prioritization” that needs to be finalized with committees.
“That’s the thing that parties don’t necessarily agree on so far,” she said.
A motion is required to amend the Standing Orders, and Ms. Normandin, who said Sept. 21 she’d seen a draft motion, noted agreement had been reached to make the changes to the Standing Orders required to allow for remote electronic voting temporarily, with Dec. 11 set as the expiration date.
Typically, a written notice of motion is required (48 hours in advance) to bring substantive proposals before the House, but if there’s unanimous agreement—as parties hope to reach in this case—a motion to amend the Standing Orders could come as early as this week. If unanimity isn’t reached—meaning the notice requirement isn’t waived—the earliest a motion to amend the Standing Orders could be dealt with is Sept. 25. Alternatively, the government could post notice through use of a Special Order Paper, which must be distributed to MPs 48 hours ahead of time—however, The Hill Times had no word of this option being pursued as of filing deadline.
The Liberals, NDP, and Conservatives were keeping mum about details of the draft motion and negotiations when reached by The Hill Times, but signalled in interviews that progress was being made. Another sign the parties are closing in on agreement came in the evening on Sept. 21, when MPs held a mock voting session on Zoom from their homes across the country. That test had hiccups, and took much longer to complete than expected, according to CTV News.
Getting ready to make history with the first ever simulated electronic vote in the Canadian House of Commons by zoom from right here in my upstairs spare bedroom! pic.twitter.com/kLB8FLVRsN
— Anita Vandenbeld (@anitavandenbeld) September 21, 2020
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez’s (Honoré-Mercier, Que.) office said in an emailed statement that reaching a consensus is possible.
“We are still in a pandemic. It is not wise for all 338 MPs to travel to Ottawa, so we support a hybrid approach,” said press secretary Simon Ross by email Sept. 22. “It worked well this spring and it’s the responsible thing to do. Remote voting is necessary to ensure that all MPs can represent their constituents. We made a proposal to other parties and we think it is possible to reach a consensus. We made a reasonable proposal to other parties and we hope they’ll work with us to reach a consensus.”
‘Everything is on the table’
New Conservative House Leader Gérard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que.) said discussions were going well and it’s important the House leaders don’t negotiate in the public, and that he’d committed to that approach.
“I deeply appreciate the quality of discussion and the fact that nobody talks publicly about where we are, and where we have been and where we will go, and I want to keep that and I will never be the first one to cross the line,” he said in an interview Sept. 21, noting it’s his first time on the leadership team. “This is the key way to address the issue. If we start to talk publicly [about negotiations]… it’s the beginning of the end.”
Asked about negotiations around committees, Mr. Deltell again said he couldn’t comment, and pointed out Conservative MPs had been “very loud” calling it “totally unacceptable” that Mr. Trudeau’s decision to prorogue Parliament killed committee work, including three investigations into the WE Charity scandal.
“Everything is on the table,” he said.
Conservative Whip Blake Richards (Banff-Airdrie, Alta.) also declined to offer details, but said the question of why it’s taken so long to reach agreement is better directed at the government.
“We want to see the ability for the House to do all of its usual functions… very importantly including the committees, getting them up and running as soon as possible and not having the government delay that,” he said. Pressed on whether there’s been resistance on that front, he said there hasn’t been “explicit resistance to anything.”
“We don’t understand the reasons for the delay, but we certainly believe there should be no trouble getting things up and running and working as usual,” said Mr. Richards.
The goal, he said, is to have 86 MPs in the Chamber—the number he said the House administration has said could be present at two-metres distance while safely following health guidelines. That range will mean eight Bloc MPs can be in the Chamber, up from the five allowed during hybrid Committee of the Whole meetings last session, Ms. Normandin said.
Parties agree to sunset clause: Bloc
Ms. Normandin said the draft motion for amendments to the Standing Orders includes a Dec. 11 sunset clause, an addition she called a “good compromise.”
Though she said it would have been easier to have something longer term, this approach gives Parliamentarians a chance to see how remote voting works out and whether anything should be changed.
That sunset clause would be in keeping with a strongly worded dissenting report from Conservative members of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC), which studied how to adapt regular House business amid the pandemic. PROC, in its main report, had recommended, among other things, that remote electronic voting be adopted (point-blank). In the July 21 report, Conservative members came out against permanent change to the Standing Orders, and called for an expiration date of Dec. 31, 2020 be set for PROC’s proposals, at which point they could be reviewed and reconsidered.
Mr. Deltell wouldn’t comment on whether a sunset clause had been agreed to, but said it’s smart to review any agreement given how quickly things can change in a pandemic. Mr. Richards, too, said it’s important a sunset clause be included.
“Nobody thought two leaders of parties [would be] positive, nobody thought that Quebec and Ontario would have an uprise of cases. So obviously we have to be very careful when we make decisions, so this is why reviewing the fact after a few months is not a bad idea,” Mr. Deltell said.
NDP Whip Rachel Blaney (North Island—Powell River, B.C.) said in an interview Sept. 18 that she’s been frustrated that, just days away from Parliament’s return, no agreement had been reached.
“The clock is ticking,” she said, giving Parliamentarians less than a week to figure out and test the system—an “unfortunate choice” on the government’s part, she said.
Parties finally agreed to do roll call vote testing on Zoom far too late in the game, said Ms. Blaney, given PROC’s report called for “significant testing” to be done in advance back in July.
A few weeks ago, she said she and NDP House Leader Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.) sent a letter to House Speaker Anthony Rota (Nipissing-Timiskaming, Ont.) asking about testing, but were told nothing could move forward on that front until all House leaders came to an understanding.
“Three-hundred and thirty-eight people voting, plus others working [like interpreters] could lead to some challenges, which is why testing is so important,” she said, adding problems with internet access in rural ridings could also have been addressed earlier if testing had occurred over the last month.
Voting app still up in the air
The Zoom approach is likely temporary, according to Ms. Normandin, calling it an “in-between.”
“It’s [Zoom] not what we’re expecting to use in the long run,” she said, pointing to preparations for an app that could be used on cell phones. The delay on that app could also be why the testing for the mock Parliament came so late, with some holding out hope the app would be ready by now, she suggested.
The NDP has been neutral on whether an app is the right approach to remote electronic voting, said Ms. Blaney, and how it performs in testing will determine whether the party thinks it’s a good idea.
It’s likely to get opposition from the Conservatives, with Mr. Richards raising concerns about the approach and comparing it to the dating app Tinder, where romantic hopefuls swipe left or right on potential matches.
“The idea of an app voting is something that does concern me,” he said, and while the Zoom approach isn’t perfect, he thinks it’s better. “The idea that an MP might be sitting at home in their pyjamas on their couch swiping left and swiping right like they’re on Tinder, this is not something that is an acceptable way for Members of Parliament to be voting.”
Green parliamentary leader Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands. B.C.) said the draft motion she’d seen as of Sept. 18 was fine with her, though she wants some clarifications and doesn’t think a new app for remote voting is necessarily, preferring the Zoom approach similar to what’s being used by the B.C. legislature, wherein MLAs can register their votes vocally, while also holding a piece of paper that signals “yay” or “nay” as a second assurance in case of glitches in sound quality.
The Green Party’s three-member caucus has been left out of these discussions, said Ms. May noted. Once there’s consensus among the four recognized parties, she expects they will share the final draft motion to see if there’s unanimous consent.
The Greens plan to have all three MPs in Ottawa for the Throne Speech Sept. 23, and will make a decision by consensus on whether to support it. Ms. May said her hope is that with remote voting in place, she can return to B.C. to fulfill her parliamentary duties while also helping the Green Party in B.C. prepare for the snap election to be held on Oct. 24.
Ms. May said she wasn’t surprised to see agreement coming so late in the game.
“My impression of these conversations is that there’s a lot of brinkmanship, there’s a lot of horse-trading and back-and-forth between House leaders,” she said.
The Hill Times
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