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How proceedings in the House of Commons during pandemic differ from normal

Last Updated Jun 2, 2020 at 5:51 pm PDT

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer delivers a statement in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill during the COVID-19 pandemic committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Canadians who tune in to watch proceedings in the House of Commons during the COVID-19 crisis may wonder why Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs continue to accuse the Liberal government of shutting down Parliament.

At a glance, it looks very much like regular proceedings in the Commons, although most MPs are participating virtually, their faces beamed onto large screens on either side of the Speaker’s chair. Other than that, it may look relatively normal. Opposition MPs are grilling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers four days a week — and get twice as much time to do it.

Although the proceedings are taking place in the Commons, it is actually a special COVID-19 committee, in which all 338 MPs are members, that is meeting for several hours Monday to Thursday. It operates under very different rules.

No votes (at least for now)

There are no votes on legislation or motions. Among other things, that means no chance for an opposition party to move a motion of non-confidence that could bring down Trudeau’s minority government.

When the government has needed to pass legislation to allow billions in emergency aid to flow, it has recalled a skeleton House of Commons for a brief sitting. It has negotiated details of each bill with opposition parties in advance to secure unanimous consent to pass it within a matter of hours. That skips the normal, lengthy three stages of debate, committee study, amendments and votes. The government has not so far attempted to use this expedited process to pass any legislation unrelated to the COVID-19 crisis.

The unresolved issue of how to allow MPs to vote electronically from remote locations was cited by Liberals and New Democrats in rejecting calls for a full return to normal House of Commons business, with a reduced number of MPs in the chamber. They opted instead to expand the special committee meetings, that have become the routine over the past month.

However, Speaker Anthony Rota told a Commons committee Tuesday he’s confident there are now several secure options for electronic voting which could be adopted as soon as MPs choose which one they want. Under the current agreement with the NDP, that could be in place to have the Commons return to business as usual, using the hybrid model, on Sept. 21.

Fewer tools for MPs

There are no opposition days, in which an opposition party can trigger debate on a subject of its choosing and force a vote on motions that could embarrass the government or even defeat it. The Conservatives, for instance, used an opposition day late last year that forced the creation of a Commons committee to examine Canada’s fraught relationship with China.

Opposition MPs cannot table written “order paper” questions, to which the government is required to give detailed, written answers within 45 days.

There is also no opportunity for MPs to introduce private members’ bills. These bills, without government backing, have a much lower chance of getting through the multiple stages of debate and voting to become law, but they can be a way for an opposition MP — or a Liberal backbencher — to raise awareness of an issue.

Fewer committees

While nine Commons standing committees, including health, finance and procedure and House affairs, are meeting virtually, 15 other standing committees, plus several joint and special committees, are not meeting at all. Speaker Rota said last month that the Commons does not have the technical resources to get any more committees up and running virtually. The committees that are meeting are focused largely on the federal response to the COVID-19 crisis, while they normally study a wide range of issues.

Fewer tactics

The special committee proceedings are tightly focused on giving opposition MPs a chance to hold the government to account. Other than raising points of order or points of privilege, there is no opportunity for MPs to use procedural tricks to hold up proceedings or make a point. For instance, they cannot force multiple standing votes with bells ringing for 30 minutes between each one, or move concurrence in a Commons committee report, a tactic often used to force several hours of debate and disrupt the government’s legislative timetable.

Summer meetings

The House of Commons does not usually meet during the summer. This year, under the agreement struck with the NDP, the Commons will meet in “committee of the whole” — essentially the same format as the special COVID-19 committee — twice in July and twice in August. That will give opposition MPs a chance to question the Liberals about any developments in the pandemic and the government’s response to it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2020.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press