Still no agreement on how returning Parliament will function as pandemic goes on

OTTAWA — Less than two weeks before Parliament is to resume sitting, no one knows how it is going to function amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Liberal government has proposed a full resumption of parliamentary business using a hybrid model — a limited number of MPs actually sitting in the House of Commons and the rest participating online, including by voting electronically.

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New Democrats are proposing a similar approach but it's unclear whether the Conservatives, who've previously opposed electronic voting, or the Bloc Quebecois, will agree.

And House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota has warned that until the Commons approves a new approach, his hands are tied.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament last month, so the committee that was supposed to propose options for electronic voting has been disbanded.

Parliament is to resume on Sept. 23 with a throne speech laying out the Liberal government's plan for an economic recovery.

Theoretically, all 338 MPs could return to the chamber. It is set to resume all its normal five-days-a-week operations after being largely suspended since mid-March, apart from periodic short sittings to pass emergency aid to help Canadians weather the economic fallout from the pandemic.

But the government is hoping some consensus can be reached in advance to limit the number of MPs in the Commons until a vote can be held on how it should function while the pandemic continues.

"The risks of COVID-19 have not gone away, so it is not wise for all 338 MPs to travel to Ottawa," said Mark Kennedy, spokesman for government House leader Pablo Rodriguez.

Kennedy said Rodriguez has proposed to his opposition counterparts that the House adopt "a full hybrid approach — with some MPs in the House of Commons chamber and the rest participating online through the videoconferencing that worked well this spring.

"We also believe that remote (or) electronic voting is necessary to ensure that all MPs can represent their constituents during this pandemic. We are working with the other parties on the details of how we move ahead on this," he said, adding that the government believes "it should be possible to reach a consensus."

Kennedy would not disclose details of the electronic voting model the government is proposing.

Since the Liberals hold only a minority of seats in the Commons, they will need at least one of the main opposition parties to support their proposed approach.

In principle at least, the NDP is on side.

NDP House leader Peter Julian and NDP whip Rachel Blaney wrote to Speaker Rota late last month, requesting that House of Commons officials undertake the necessary measures, including testing of electronic voting, to ensure a hybrid model Parliament could begin immediately after Sept. 23.

While he expressed confidence in the ability of officials to act in a "timely" manner, Rota replied that he cannot instruct them to do anything until the House of Commons decides how it wants to proceed.

He noted that the special orders passed by the Commons to allow for hybrid sittings last spring and periodically over the summer are no longer in force due to Trudeau's decision to prorogue Parliament.

The procedure and House affairs committee has reported on some options for a more fully functioning hybrid Parliament but Rota noted the committee's reports "have not been debated, let alone adopted. With prorogation, these reports have lapsed and are no longer before the House."

The Conservatives on the committee last spring issued a dissenting report, in which they argued against any form of electronic voting. Gerard Deltell, the Conservatives' new House leader, declined to comment Thursday on the government's proposal, with a spokesperson saying he had just received it and needed time to study it.

The Bloc also declined to comment.

In a statement Thursday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the issue of how Parliament will function should have been settled during a single-day sitting of the Commons that had been scheduled for late August but was cancelled when Trudeau "recklessly shut down Parliament."

"We're glad the Liberals finally responded and are reviewing their proposal, but it shouldn't have taken weeks," he said.

"We could have had this all squared away so we could get to work right away to help people, but instead the Liberals again put their own interests first, instead of putting people first."

Trudeau, meanwhile, will conduct a cabinet retreat Monday and Tuesday in Ottawa, with most ministers expected to participate in person. They are to focus on plans for the economic recovery and the throne speech.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2020.

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