OTTAWA — Federal Conservatives have crusaded for a return to parliamentary business as usual but they’re opposed to the one thing Liberals and New Democrats insist is necessary to do that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: electronic voting.
Conservative House leader Candice Bergen says her party is suspicious of anything promoted by the Liberals that would keep most MPs out of the House of Commons and, in her view, help the government avoid accountability.
Besides, she says there are other options that would allow all 338 MPs to vote in person in the chamber while maintaining physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In a letter to Commons Speaker Anthony Rota earlier this month, Bergen suggested six different options, including having MPs line up in “yea” and “nay” queues in the courtyard space surrounding the chamber from where they could individually enter the Commons to have their votes recorded.
Other options included having small groups of MPs vote in shifts, issuing paper ballots and allowing each party’s whip to “block vote” on behalf of their colleagues.
Allowances would be made for any dissenting MPs to cast their own votes.
“When Liberals don’t want members of Parliament in Ottawa, I’m suspicious,” Bergen said in an interview.
“When they want MPs to do their jobs in a nice, far-away setting and where their powers are diluted, where their responsibilities are taken away, I am very suspicious.”
However, government House leader Pablo Rodriguez says he can’t figure out why the Conservatives are so dead set against the “one little thing” that would allow the Commons to resume all normal operations and restore all MPs’ powers, including voting, without risk for transmission of COVID-19.
“This is the 21st Century,” Rodriguez said in an interview.
“It would be very, very simple to bring back Parliament … with MPs in the House, others virtually. That means 338 MPs participating which is what we want because this is what’s best for democracy, with everything of a regular Parliament, the only difference (being) you vote electronically.
“The Conservatives are still opposed to that and I don’t know why … They’re the only ones.”
Rodriguez says the Conservative position makes no sense because it would require MPs to travel back and forth from their ridings to Ottawa, increasing the potential for catching and spreading the infection.
The Conservatives have been pushing for weeks for a full resumption of normal in-person parliamentary business, albeit with a limited number of about 50 MPs actually physically present in the Commons. The Bloc Quebecois recently sided with them on that front, after initially opposing the idea.
But New Democrats joined forces with the Liberals to reject that option, arguing that normal business can’t resume until a way is found to allow electronic voting by MPs not in the chamber.
In the meantime, they agreed to continue having a special COVID-19 committee meet four times a week in the Commons, with a small number of MPs in the chamber and the others participating virtually.
The last special committee meeting took place Thursday but there are to be similar sessions four times over the summer.
Normal proceedings in the Commons have been suspended since mid-March, except for a handful of brief, single-day sittings to pass emergency aid legislation. It is currently scheduled to resume regular business on Sept. 21.
However, if public health experts continue to recommend physical distancing in the fall, Rodriguez said the Commons could still safely resume all normal operations, with most MPs participating virtually and voting electronically from remote locations.
Rota has said he’s confident electronic voting can be done securely. The all-party procedure and House affairs committee has been instructed to recommend a precise procedure for doing so by next week.
While it could be implemented on a temporary basis with the support of just one of the main opposition parties, Rodriguez said it would be better if they could all agree.
But Bergen indicated that’s not in the cards.
While Conservatives were initially open to the idea of electronic voting, she said: “I would say we have become progressively more opposed to it and more suspicious of the idea.”
The last straw was “the hypocrisy” of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mingling with thousands of protesters against racism two weeks ago, even as he argued that it wasn’t safe for MPs to sit in Parliament.
“That was I think for Conservatives a clear signal that he was running more from accountability than he is … concerned about health and safety,” Bergen said.
“Parliament has sat during wars, depression and all kinds of crises and not had electronic voting … I think all members of Parliament need to be there voting in person and being recorded as such.”
Rodriguez said the government has done what it could to remain accountable during the pandemic. Indeed, he said the special committee arrangement allowed opposition MPs to ask almost 3,200 questions of the government this spring, compared to just 1,800 that would have been asked had the Commons been operating normally.
But Bergen dismissed that as ”lame excuses,” arguing that simply posing questions “is not Parliament and it’s insulting to every member of Parliament and really to Canadian democracy that that is what he defines as satisfactory.”