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Here to stay, or time to do away? Here is what MPs have heard about hybrid sittings

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As Canadian workplaces continue to evolve their hybrid office approaches, members of Parliament have also been contemplating the future of the House of Commons’ hybrid sitting structure.

Over the fall sitting, MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee have been studying the future of hybrid Parliament, and in the new year are set to release a series of recommendations as to whether it is time to retire the virtual elements of proceedings that were introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study was requested as part of the government’s motion that locked in hybrid provisions—allowing MPs to continue to participate virtually in debates and committee meetings, as well as vote remotely from anywhere in Canada—through to June 2023, pending the committee’s findings.

As part of the committee’s work, MPs heard from current and former parliamentarians, as well as international parliamentary officials. Then, the committee went behind closed doors to draft a report.

Before adjourning for the holidays, the committee agreed on a final draft of the report which will be titled: “Future of Hybrid Proceedings in the House of Commons.”

Opposition members have been given until midday Jan. 9 to provide the committee clerk any dissenting or supplementary opinions.

Then it will be up to committee chair Liberal MP Bardish Chagger to present the final report to the House of Commons, likely when it resumes on Jan. 30.

Ahead of that report being made public, here’s a sampling of what the committee has heard from participants in the hybrid sitting hearings and whether they should stay or go, in their own words.

House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota:

Anthony Rota

“The committee may also wish to recommend additional changes to the Standing Orders to address some of the challenges of hybrid features that we have observed—for example, matters of decorum, dress code and backgrounds when members are video conferencing or guidance on how the House should proceed when members, witnesses or interpreters face connectivity issues… There are also some big-picture questions the committee may also wish to explore. For example, should the House continue to allow remote participation for all members in any situation at any time? Should this option be available under specific circumstances that the House will define? Will these provisions apply differently in the chamber, in committees, or in other parliamentary activities?”

Government House Leader Mark Holland:

“Politics for me was a calling that I took extremely seriously. I threw myself into it with everything I had. I listened to my whip when I came in federally. I listened to my party… When I lost, because I had my thrown my entire universe into this enterprise at the expense of, unfortunately, a lot of other things that I should have taken better care of, I was in a really desperate spot… I think we have to ask a fundamental question, which is when an employee shows up, if they have the opportunity to have their needs met, if they have a good relationship with their family, these people are going to be fundamentally more productive, more creative, more resilient and less corruptible. They’ll be in a much better place to serve their community… If we’re going to create that place that people can come to, this place needs to be more human. It needs to be more compassionate. Hybrid isn’t an answer, but I submit that it’s a start.”

Former Conservative MP Dona Cadman: 

Dona Cadman

“In June 1997, my husband, Chuck, was elected MP for Surrey North. In 2004, Chuck was diagnosed with cancer, and the following months were filled with doctor appointments, surgery, chemo and drugs. Physically, it was getting harder and harder to travel back and forth from our home in B.C. to Ottawa. His last flight from Ottawa was in May 2005 after the vote that saved the government from an election. He died on July 9, 2005… Chuck would have loved to be able to participate while recovering from surgery. Mentally he was fine, but the body was suffering. You can’t ignore the fact that jet lag plays a prominent role in a person’s health, with multiple time zones. The thought of staying in the riding but still participating in government proceedings, wow, this sounds so good… We need more efficient government for our constituents. Let’s not let tradition be an enemy of our progress.”

Liberal MP Parm Bains:

“While I waited for my transplant, it was crucial that I avoid contracting viruses, like COVID-19, so that I could be operated on safely when the time came. If it had not been for the hybrid Parliament provisions, I could not have safeguarded my health and kept my commitment to represent my constituents in Parliament. Because I was able to fulfill my responsibilities virtually… I have been able to participate in all respective caucus meetings to communicate Richmond’s economic and service priorities. I was able to vote on every important measure introduced in the House.”

NDP MP Laurel Collins:

Laurel Collins

“I was able to continue working into my ninth month of pregnancy. Not every woman wants to do that, but every woman deserves the choice… As the parent of a young infant, being allowed to work remotely when needed means that I’ve had the flexibility to keep working, even when we’ve had occasional child care challenges… The third example is when I was sick. Like many members who got COVID-19 this past year, I followed public health guidelines and isolated. I wouldn’t have been able to continue working if it weren’t for virtual Parliament. I participated in committees, voted and rose numerous times in the House, all while isolating…The last example I want to share is when my father passed away. I was able to fly home to visit him while he was still lucid and to keep working while remaining close by. Then, a couple of weeks later, I was grateful to be able to quickly get to the hospital when the doctor called, so that I was present when he passed… I hope you make hybrid Parliament permanent, so we can make Parliament more accessible for future members… because it’s an important tool to increase participation and representation, and to make Parliament more equitable for all.”

Conservative MP Rosemarie Falk:

“In discussing the hybrid Parliament, we know there are obvious discussions around work-life balance and the impact it has on the abilities of MPs to perform to their fullest in their job. I am a mother of four young children. I had my most recent child five months ago, and I would propose, even, that hybrid Parliament has its own challenges that we’ve all endeavoured… There’s an expectation that members of Parliament are fully engaged in parliamentary work, which I absolutely agree we need to be in order to be successful for our constituents. When you’re home in the riding, there are other priorities and responsibilities that are competing for your time… I would say that in reality, that’s actually to the detriment of our executing our parliamentary responsibilities… I just want to get in one more quick comment. I think we have to be careful as parliamentarians about setting a precedent of working while we’re sick.”

Bloc Quebecois MP Andreanne Larouche:

Andreanne Larouche

“It’s hard to hold government accountable in a hybrid Parliament where ministers can easily cut and run. It’s easier to represent our constituents, and we’re proud to do it, when all MPs are physically in the parliamentary precinct. The informal meetings and follow-ups we’re able to have in person between colleagues on Parliament Hill clearly show that. I know networking is a challenge for women. They easily become isolated when they have kids, and that hurts their chances of promotion… The lack of resources on Parliament Hill for women MPs with young children can certainly make things harder… Parliament should improve its practices.”

NDP MP Carol Hughes:

“If I’m going to be away from Ottawa, I have to let my whip’s office know and I have to get permission. I would tend to think that, as we move forward, this is probably happening as well. We are required to be here, unless we have permission from the whip to be away for special reasons… I think, for special circumstances, it is the responsibility of each party to have those prescribed guidelines… I think there is a huge role for the hybrid Parliament to play. We are in that technology world now, and I don’t think that anybody is… Hopefully, nobody is abusing it. I think that everybody who can be here is here unless they have special circumstances. I know that every party has been using it even though they can be here right now.”

Liberal MP Jean Yip:

Jean Yip

“My late husband, Arnold Chan, was the previous member of Parliament for Scarborough—Agincourt. He became ill while in office with nasopharyngeal cancer, more commonly known as head and neck cancer. Arnold passed away five years ago. Exhausting as it was, Arnold travelled back and forth… Arnold was committed to upholding his parliamentary duties in Ottawa right to the end. This meant he had to be there in person. Even though it compromised his health, Arnold pushed himself. He did not want to let his constituents or his colleagues down…. As a result, I had to split my time with an increasingly terminally ill husband in Ottawa and my three boys at home. It was the worst time of my life. My children were losing their father, and I was losing my best friend and husband… Having the virtual option would have helped him manage his health, and given him more time with his family. Time is so precious, and it never can be regained.”

Bloc Quebecois MP Marie-Helene Gaudreau:

“I must tell you that last year I used the hybrid mode out of concern for my daughter… because she needed special care. I was with her for a week. I had to be in Parliament, but the Zoom application was a perfect tool as it allowed me to work in virtual mode… If there had not been a hybrid Parliament, I would not have been able to be at my child’s bedside… and today I am grateful for that. That being said, I don’t want to live with regrets. I tell myself that we are capable of finding a solution with respectable and suitable means for the 26 weeks of parliamentary sittings. I would hope that we will become aware of the availability of our resources.”

Conservative MP Tom Kmiec:

Tom Kmiec

“I believe a hybrid Parliament will nullify that distinction between a constituency week and a sessional week, which is when you’re supposed to be here doing the work of a parliamentarian… Why do we have constituency weeks if we’re going to have a hybrid Parliament model? Why don’t we then sit longer? There is no distinction between the two things. If I can do a Zoom meeting on a Sunday just to keep doing my work, that takes away the Sunday as a family day, essentially… There is no work-life balance possible, I don’t believe, in a hybrid Parliament setting.”

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