OTTAWA — Having a virtual meeting of Parliament next week with all 338 MPs present remains beyond the capacity of the House of Commons, the institution’s most senior administrator said Tuesday.
Charles Robert, the Clerk of the House of Commons, said the Liberal government was reminded of those limitations before it introduced a motion, passed Monday, setting a path forward for Parliament that includes two virtual meetings a week.
The motion came during a brief return to normal routine in the Commons after it had been adjourned mid-March to comply with public health requirements to limit the spread of COVID-19.
But rather than continue with the regular routine, the Liberals put forward a motion to turn regular sittings into meetings of a special COVID-19 committee solely focused on pandemic response.
The Conservatives had objected, arguing that in the short-term virtual sittings wouldn’t work and small numbers of MPs should meet in person three times a week while meeting physical distancing requirements.
But they lost, as the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois and NDP all voted in support of a motion that the committee, made up of all MPs, would gather for one in-person sitting a week, plus two virtual ones, beginning on April 28.
Robert reminded the Commons procedure committee Tuesday that the Speaker had told the government in early April that a full virtual meeting of the House wouldn’t be possible much before the middle of May.
That is still the case, Robert said.
“We do not believe that we will be in a position to allow a special committee to meet with the entirety of it membership,” he said.
“That is beyond our capacity and we were trying to signal that, and I suspect that when this motion was drafted they took into account the warnings that we had raised.”
Those warnings are reflected in a simple clause within the motion — that the meetings by video conference “shall be subject by such limits as the House administration may indicate are necessary.”
In practical terms, that means that while more than the 30 or so people who logged-on for Tuesday’s committee meeting can be present next week, all 338 MPs can’t, Roberts said.
Though all MPs are de facto members of the committee, only seven MPs are required for quorum, a number far less than the 20 required for a regular Commons sitting.
Redefining what quorum means in a digital age when MPs can be present by virtual means is one of the ways the Commons is going to need to adapt, Robert and other senior officials told the committee Tuesday.
Another? Heckles designed to raise political hackles may be a thing of the past.
Moving to video conferencing platforms brings with it questions about how the daily back-and-forth in the Commons will work, Robert said.
“When you’re not speaking, you’re on mute,” he said,
“In question period, the energy that is exchanged with the banter, or the heckling if you like, among the members in response to questions, or in response to answers, you would not actually hear in a virtual sitting unless the technology changes from what we have now.”
Speaker Anthony Rota had earlier told MPs that moving to a full virtual Parliament will mean adapting the rules and procedures of the House of Commons over time, not all at once.
Underpinning all the changes must be a commitment to basic principles, he said.
They include making sure MPs can do their work, including providing the technological support required and figuring out a way around unstable internet connections in rural parts of the country.
The dignity and decorum of the Commons must also be respected, he said, as he gently chided some MPs on the committee for their less-than-business-like attire on Tuesday’s call.
“I promise you the next time I will be wearing a tie,” said Bloc Quebecois MP Alain Therrien.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press