National News

Conservatives say virtual Commons proceedings allow government to dodge scrutiny

By The Canadian Press

Published 10:54 PST, Wed November 24, 2021

Last Updated: 11:56 PST, Wed November 24, 2021

OTTAWA — Conservative MPs were opposing a government proposal Wednesday to return to a hybrid format in the House of Commons, which has allowed members to participate virtually in proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conservative deputy leader Candice Bergen says her party fears hybrid sittings "let the government off the hook" and give ministers an excuse not to turn up to answer questions in the Commons.

MPs are set to debate whether to resume the hybrid format, with both the Liberals and NDP supporting the move. They argue that it helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 and allows MPs who are ill, or have sick family members, the ability to participate from their homes or offices.

The Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois both want to fully return to normal in-person sittings.

Bergen argued that the hybrid format is designed to protect the government from “scrutiny and accountability," not to protect Canadians from the deadly virus.

"The fact is that the government has been let off the hook because they haven’t been here," she said, adding that she sometimes sat in the chamber during the last session of Parliament without a single Liberal MP or minister in the House.

She said the government's enthusiasm for virtual proceedings "doesn't have anything to do with protecting themselves or anyone else from COVID."

"They are protecting themselves from accountability and scrutiny. We’ve seen that and we believe that it is time that it stopped," she said.

The NDP backs the hybrid format because it allows all MPs — including those forced to self-isolate if they come in contact with someone with COVID-19 — to take part in Commons proceedings.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said MPs should consider adopting the hybrid format permanently because it would allow MPs with young children to take part in debates from home.

That, in turn, would make becoming an MP more attractive to people with caring responsibilities, he's argued.

On Wednesday, Singh told reporters he is open to the idea of also introducing rapid COVID-19 tests in the Commons to help protect parliamentary staff, in particular.

"Rapid tests were used in the campaign and I can see an argument for it," he said.

The Conservatives had rapid tests available for MPs to take outside their caucus meeting on Wednesday morning.

Quebec Tory MP Richard Lehoux, who is fully vaccinated, is currently at home after being diagnosed with COVID-19 on Saturday, two days after attending an in-person Conservative caucus retreat.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has said all 118 of his MPs are now either fully vaccinated or have medical exemptions. He has declined to say how many have claimed an exemption for medical reasons.

Government House leader Mark Holland renewed his call Wednesday for O'Toole to say how many Tory MPs are unvaccinated. He said: "If it is more than one, if it is two or three or four or five or six, it's not logical, not at all."

On Tuesday, Bergen had hit back at Holland's earlier questioning of doctors' medical exemptions saying it was “very dangerous” for a politician to question the integrity of medical professionals.

"I think that is reckless in many ways. Mark Holland is not a doctor. My colleague called him a 'spin doctor,' she said.

Asked why he wanted to give MPs the option to work virtually from home in a hybrid Parliament, while allowing 20,000 people to go to a hockey match, Holland said the comparison was not the same because MPs had no option but to travel to Ottawa for work. He said MPs travel "from all over the country" and spend several days in Ottawa at a time.

He said the hybrid Parliament was designed to protect people's health during the pandemic. But he had "no idea" if it could continue after it is over.

– Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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