COMMENTARY: Balancing in-person and virtual sessions of Parliament makes the most sense for now

Amid hopeful signs of progress in the battle to contain COVID-19, it’s clear that we are still a long way from a return to normal when it comes to Parliament and the work of Canada’s elected politicians.

While the need to hold the government accountable and to scrutinize its actions and decisions has not gone away, the ability to do so has certainly faced some challenges. Having all 338 MPs in Ottawa for debates and votes is simply not feasible now nor will it be in the immediate future.

While it is possible for the House of Commons to function with a smaller number of MPs, we should be careful about sidelining the rest of our elected representatives. The business of Parliament is about more than just Party A criticizing Party B, it’s also about MPs being able to be a voice for their communities, their regions, and their provinces.

The opposition Conservatives are calling for Parliament to reconvene later this month with more regular in-person sittings, arguing that virtual sessions have been problematic and that in-person gatherings are vital to the proper functioning of democracy.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer believes that if provinces are able to reopen their economies, then the House of Commons can start to reopen, as well.

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That position is at odds with the recommendations from an all-party committee, which calls for additional virtual sittings and a mechanism to allow for secure electronic voting to allow Parliament to conduct its regular business for the time being.

The status quo appears to be a fairly reasonable compromise.

For a few weeks now, MPs have been meeting by videoconference twice a week and in person once a week. In fact, the federal Parliament has been meeting much more than most of its provincial counterparts over the last two months. This hybrid approach makes the most sense for now.

The urgency in responding to the pandemic and the limitations on how Parliament is able to function should not be reasons to give the government any sort of a free pass or blank cheque. This point is key. A lot of big decisions are being made, many with rather big price tags, and the government needs to be accountable for those decisions.

When it comes to gathering MPs in person, the obvious candidates to fill those seats are those closest in proximity to the nation’s capital. The prime minister and key cabinet ministers have obviously remained in Ottawa to do their work, and it makes sense that the opposition leaders be there, as well.

But that process is going to exclude MPs from other parts of the country, notably the west and Atlantic Canada. It’s a rather cynical view of Canadian politics to simply assume that all Conservatives or all Liberals are going to raise the same concerns or ask the same questions or even vote the same way.

Whatever the drawbacks might be around virtual or videoconference debate, at least it allows MPs from all parts of the country to be more or less present and to be able to act as the voices of their constituents and their communities.

As the situation in Canada continues to evolve, it may be more practical to at least have a rotation of MPs from other provinces present for in-person gatherings. We can then start to expand the number of MPs physically present in the House — but that’s a slow and gradual process, one that needn’t be rushed.

Hopefully the various parties can find some middle ground here. We shouldn’t abandon either virtual or in-person sessions at this point — we need both.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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