In the last five months, Justin Trudeau has been to the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom again, and, just one week ago, the United States. But it’s not safe for the people tasked with holding him to account to travel to Ottawa.
“Canadians should be asking why the Liberals can gather in Glasgow, but are out of sight in Ottawa,” Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said of the Liberal plan to make in-person attendance in the House of Commons optional for members of parliament.
It’s a good question without a good answer. While the hybrid approach is supposed to be about the pandemic, justifications range from work-life balance to the importance of getting women in politics to the almighty fight against climate change.
The real explanation is found in the immortal wisdom of my late friend Kathy Shaidle: “Liberals – it’s different when they do it.”
The same Liberals who vowed undying transparency in government want to keep their critics just a mute button away. Thanks to (unsurprising) support from the NDP, the Liberals are getting their way.
As someone who’s worked from home since even before the pandemic, I appreciate the flexibility of remote work as much as anyone. (Though I was never so adventurous as to vote on legislation in an airplane bathroom or pee in a cup without leaving my desk).
Virtual lawmaking creates both technical and accountability problems, however.
As anyone who’s spent the last two years on Zoom knows, the internet is not reliable. This is especially true, ironically, for the remote and rural MPs who face the most onerous routes to Ottawa each week. During Pierre Poilievre’s grilling of Justin Trudeau about the WE scandal last year, committee chair Wayne Easter dropped off the call because of a storm in Prince Edward Island.
And then there’s the issue of accountability. Scandal-plagued ministers should have to look their colleagues in the face as they defend themselves in Question Period. Vigorous back-and-forth debate is simply not replicable online. Moreover, members of parliament and ministers can conveniently avoid reporters by just disconnecting from a call instead of walking out the front door of the House of Commons.
Interestingly, one of the better defenses of in-person politicking came from Liberal MP Marc Garneau earlier this year as he defended his trip to the G7 meeting in London while he was the foreign minister.
“There are some things that are very difficult to do on Zoom,” Garneau told CTV’s Evan Solomon. “When we’re talking about diplomacy and getting together with other countries and trying to solve some very challenging problems in the world, and having to engage, and being persuasive, there’s something that is missing when you’re on a Zoom call, which is really more like a two-dimensional way of communicating.”
Now, this may be sufficient for a two-dimensional government, though it raises the question of whether the Liberals were being disingenuous then or now. My money is on the latter.
Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks abandoned the pandemic excuse altogether, saying virtual parliament is important to save the planet.
“A hybrid Parliament system is cheaper, more efficient and climate-friendly,” she said. “The avoided travels to and from Ottawa…are equal to removing 1.5 cars per parliamentarian from circulation each year.”
Saks’ exhortation on climate grounds suggests the Liberals are finding arguments to support their desired outcome rather than genuinely pursuing a hybrid parliament as a safe pandemic measure. After all, what was the point of mandating vaccination MPs then?
During the Thursday debate, NDP MP Laurel Collins held her adorable seven month old daughter as she lamented the 10-hours of travel it takes for her to get from her riding of Victoria, BC to Ottawa.
“A virtual Parliament for me would mean I could still work, even if I was stuck in Victoria unable to fly because she is still breastfeeding, has caught a mild cold or has a teething fever,” Collins said.
For Collins, sitting virtually means more women in politics.
There are lots of MPs who move their families to Ottawa for this exact reason. There are also MPs who have delayed seeking office until there aren’t as many trade-offs required. Regardless, if we’re going to reform the way Canadian politics operates for reasons of climate or gender, let’s not cloak it in the urgency of a pandemic.
Throughout the WE and SNC-Lavalin scandals, the NDP talked a big game when it came to demanding accountability from the Liberals. On this side of the election, they appear to have forgotten that.
As the world reopens, the Liberals and NDP are doubling down on Zoom politics. Perhaps they just want a shorter commute, but I’m not buying it.
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