Samara shares recommendations to PROC about Parliament during the pandemic

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Happening Now Wednesday, June 17, 2020 View Count = 1546

Samara shares recommendations to PROC about Parliament during the pandemic


The Samara Centre for Democracy was invited to speak before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) on June 11th, 2020. The committee studies and reports on the rules and practices of the House and its committees, electoral matters, questions of privilege, MP conflicts of interest, internal administration of the House, and services and facilities for MPs. It is currently studying parliamentary duties and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Samara Centre's Research Director, Dr. Mike Morden, delivered the following remarks to presiding m
embers of the committee. (Check against delivery.)

Watch his full remarks here.

Thank you for the opportunity to address this committee.

My name is Michael Morden, and I’m the Research Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy. As you may know, the Samara Centre is an independent, nonpartisan charity that is dedicated to strengthening Canadian democracy through research and programming.

We want to thank the committee for undertaking this study. Given the scope of this crisis, the scale of the Government’s response, and the enormous uncertainty that exists, Parliament is not optional in this time. The only question to address ourselves to is how to make Parliament work. Arriving at a solution that commands some measure of cross-partisan support is a solemn responsibility that falls to you.

The Samara Centre supports a move in the immediate term to hybrid virtual-in-person sittings of the House of Commons, with remote voting for those who are unable to attend due to the pandemic. We think the hybrid virtual model is the best among imperfect options.

To be clear, the best of all versions of the House of Commons is one in which 338 individuals share a room, and there are many reasons for that. We have been a consistent voice in calling for Members to spend more time together in Ottawa, to facilitate collegiality and informal relationship-building between members, parties, and chambers.

But given the limits imposed through physical distancing, and credible concern about travel, that model is not currently on the table, and we need a full service Parliament now and through the summer. I hope the option of a full in-person convening of the Commons will return soon, but we are clearly in a state of deep uncertainty.  As the second largest country on earth, we may find that we are uniquely challenged to convene ongoing full national sittings of Parliament. It is therefore a necessary step in the immediate term, and a prudent step for the middle term, to institute capacity to resume full Parliamentary business with remote participation.

I want to foreground the values which lead us to that conclusion. In times of uncertainty, it’s often worthwhile to return to first principles. Parliament exists for scrutiny, to pass legislation, and to provide democratic representation. The most desirable pandemic Parliament model is one which strikes the best balance between those functions.

We feel the current approach, employing a handful of day-long sessions and committee work, is insufficient to deliver the level of scrutiny, representation, and legislative productivity that is required.

We also take issue with any approach that would convene the Commons but exclude most of its members—for example, operating with a skeleton crew of 30 to 50 Members. Such an approach can facilitate some scrutiny, and the passing of legislation. But it comes at the expense of representation. Some 18 million Canadians voted last fall in elections that sent individual representatives from each of Canada’s communities. It is no small thing to render 85% of Canadians unrepresented in the House of Commons while these momentous decisions are taken.

We think the best balance between scrutiny, productivity, and representation is struck with a hybrid Parliament, permitting remote participation, including remote voting. The technical challenge posed in such an approach is not insurmountable. Many other jurisdictions have already walked that road, and the House of Commons administration—which deserves particular praise for adapting and adding capacity with alacrity—has declared itself ready. There are different ways to facilitate remote voting—doubtless we will discuss those, and I would defer to Drs Goodman and Essex and others on design principles. But in our view, there is no question that remote voting is possible, and all it waits on is a decision by Parliamentarians.

In the early stages of the pandemic, we supported the notion of incremental adaptation. Moving to a hybrid virtual parliament was never going to be as simple as flipping a switch. We now have proof of concept in the experience of other jurisdictions, and in Parliament’s own experience of authorizing the virtual conduct of some business. At this point, we hope that the committee will provide the Commons with a strong prompt to move as quickly as is feasible to resume full parliamentary business with remote participation.

We believe that legislative business should not be limited to the pandemic response alone. There are a range of issues which were urgent in January and February of this year, and are no less urgent now. Just as doctors warn about the secondary health crises that come from delaying treatment of non-COVID-19 related illness, Canada may face multiple crises during and after the pandemic if we cannot attend to the policy needs that existed before it.

We also believe that the hybrid virtual Parliament’s business should include opposition days and private members’ business. No one has all the answers right now. This is a time for multiple inputs.

In closing, I want to mention briefly that the Samara Centre periodically surveys MPs and we are doing so now, precisely on the question of how the Pandemic has and should affect parliamentary work. We are keen to develop an accurate picture of Members’ views on these issues, and encourage all Members to make use of this anonymous platform for sharing your insight and expertise.

Thank you.

Watch the full remarks here.

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