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Parties locked in negotiations again over House of Commons’ return

Parties locked in negotiations again over House of Commons’ return
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OTTAWA – After months on the sidelines, Conservatives are pushing for Parliament to return to full sittings next week in the latest negotiation over the role of the House of Commons during the COVID-19 crisis.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said Friday the House needs to come back with a reduced number of MPs in the chamber and that all parliamentary committees should resume regular meetings.

“The virtual committee meetings are not a replacement, nor are the Prime Minister’s daily press conferences in front of Rideau Cottage,” he said.

Since late April, MPs have held one in person sitting and two virtual sittings per week as a special parliamentary committee focused on the virus and its impact on Canadians.

Those sessions do not come with the same level of accountability as a full Parliament, MPs don’t have the same authorities to ask for documents and file written questions for the government to answer. It also limits the scope of what can be discussed in Parliament.

The virtual committee meetings are not a replacement

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the discussions were ongoing, but he wanted to ensure that MPs that aren’t able to come to Ottawa are still represented in the House.

“There will have to be a way for parliamentarians across the country to express the concerns and ask questions on behalf of their constituents. These are the kinds of things that we’re working out,” he said.

He said MPs should be able to ask about non COVID-19 matters and said the best form for this could be a hybrid model, with some MPs participating in person and others via videoconference.

“All parties are united in wanting to ensure that we continue, as we have been, to demonstrate that our democracy is strong and our institutions are functioning, not just despite the crisis, but because of the crisis.”

A House committee has been studying how to keep Parliament functioning during the pandemic and released its findings last week. It recommended pursuing a hybrid parliament that would see video screens set up in the House of Commons chamber. The British Parliament in London has used a similar approach to bring its Parliament back to quasi normal sittings.

Scheer said he is open to a hybrid model, but believes in person house sittings have to be at the core of that arrangement. He also wants all of the nearly 30 parliamentary committees to resume their sittings. During the pandemic, only a handful have been sitting regularly.

House of Commons staff have testified they can only run so many virtual committee meetings at a time with the resources they currently have available.

Parliament was initially suspended on March 13, with an all party agreement to pass emergency legislation after several MPs were exposed to the virus or became sick. There were concerns then that the full House could become a hot spot for spreading the disease across the country.

The Commons has since come back in a reduced form several times to pass more spending measures.

An agreement passed on April 20, set the stage for the virtual sittings that have been running for about a month now, but that deal expires on Monday. Without that arrangement in place Parliament would technically resume with all 338 MPs required to be in attendance, but all sides have said that many MPs will not be coming back to the house.

Liberal sources speaking on background said they expect the negotiations over this sitting to be the most difficult to date and that it’s possible no deal will be found and instead an agreement will have to be voted on in the House.

Passing an agreement through the House of Commons could require several days of debate.

The Bloc Québécois has demanded the government provide a fiscal update to the country as a condition of its support for any deal on Parliament reopening. Party leader Yves-François Blanchet also called out the Conservatives for failing to respect the agreed number of MPs in the chamber during previous sessions.

NDP House leader Peter Julian said his party is prepared to play the role of deal breaker to bring the parties together.

“We are looking to promote that great Canadian spirit of compromise between where the government and the official opposition are,” he said.

Julian said his party is looking for a hybrid parliament that would allow the House of Commons to sit regularly, but also allows MPs who sit some distance from Ottawa to participate.

“We can’t have MPs traveling across the country, in airports, and potentially bringing a virus from one part of the country to the other,” he said. “The way to ensure that Parliament is functioning is through that hybrid model.”

Julian said he believes the Liberals have to accept the need for more transparency and the Conservatives have to accept it will happen gradually.

“The government needs to understand the importance of Parliament. The official opposition needs to understand that there are steps that need to be taken.”

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