Good morning, everyone. I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number 19 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. Pursuant to the order of reference of May 26, 2020, the committee is meeting on its study of parliamentary duties and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pursuant to the motion adopted by the House on May 26, the committee may continue to sit virtually until Monday, September 21, to consider matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic and other matters. Certain limitations on the virtual committee meetings held until now are now removed.
As was just mentioned, the committee is now able to consider other matters and, in addition to receiving evidence, the committee may also consider motions as we normally do. As stipulated in the latest order of reference from the House, all motions shall be decided by way of a recorded vote. Finally, the House has also authorized our committee to conduct some of our proceedings in camera specifically for the purpose of considering draft reports and the selection of witnesses.
As you know, part of our committee meeting today will be in camera. I have a reminder that in camera proceedings may be conducted in a manner that takes into account the potential risks to confidentiality inherent in meetings with remote participants, such as the ability of people in close proximity to overhear the proceedings.
Members of the committee, the clerk and the analysts should participate in the proceedings with their camera on. Staff are allowed to participate. One staff per member is allowed to participate, as is one from the House leader's office and the whips' offices as well. They should make sure that their cameras are off. They should also make sure that their mikes are muted. I'm just going to paraphrase some of this stuff and get through it.
Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like it does in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of “floor”, “English” or “French”. As you are speaking, if you plan to alternate from one language to another, you will need to also switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language you are speaking. You may want to allow for a short pause when switching languages. When you're not speaking, your mike should be on mute. To raise a point of order in this meeting and to get my attention, please unmute your mike and say that you have a point of order. After that, anyone who wishes to speak to the point of order should raise the hand in the participant toolbar. Also, finally but most importantly, headsets are strongly encouraged. Please do make sure that you have your headsets or a mike. That will help the interpreters and will help all of the committee members to be able to participate properly in this meeting.
I would like to welcome back Mr. Anthony Rota, the Speaker of the House of Commons, for our meeting number 19.
We have received your opening statement in both official languages. Thank you very much for that.
I'd also like to welcome the whole House administration team that we have with us today, including Mr. Charles Robert, Clerk of the House of Commons; Mr. Michel Patrice, deputy clerk, administration; André Gagnon; and Philippe Dufresne. Mr. Aubé is back with us again today too.
Thank you for being here.
The Speaker will be here for the first half of the meeting. That will be for approximately 90 minutes. It may go over a little bit. For the second half of the meeting, for the in camera portion, we will also have with us Scott Jones, from the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security. That portion of the meeting will be in camera. Along with Scott Jones, we will still have the House administration here with us.
Without further ado, I would like to welcome you back, Mr. Speaker. Please take your time to make your opening statement. We will have two rounds of questions after you speak. As long as you're here, we'll be having questions with you. After that, we will continue and carry on with questions for the rest of the administration.
Thank you, Madam Chair, for your invitation to appear before the committee as it embarks on the second phase of its study of parliamentary duties and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The committee's order of reference asks that it look at what changes might be needed to enable the House to meet during this pandemic. It encourages the committee to adopt a gradual approach, beginning with hybrid sittings, and asks the committee to consider the issue of remote voting.
As I noted in previous appearances, through collaboration among the parties, the House has already adapted many of its usual practices in response to the current circumstances. For example, it has met with a reduced number of members physically present and suspended the application of certain rules to allow for sufficient distancing. It has authorized standing committees to meet virtually and has created a special committee, composed of members of the House, that has met in person virtually, and as of last week, in a combination of the two in a hybrid format. All of this took place with minimal adaptation of the Standing Orders.
In addition, over the past several weeks, the House administration has assessed our technical readiness for hybrid or virtual sittings of the House and their procedural implications. Last month I shared with you, Madam Chair, the committee and the House leaders, two documents showing how the House administration is ready to support such sittings. The solution has been developed in keeping with the guiding principles that I outlined during my appearance before the committee on April 21.
I am pleased to report that many of the technical issues around accessibility, connectivity, user-friendliness, security, sound and visual quality and real-time interpretation have been resolved. The success of virtual and hybrid meetings of committees, including the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, which reproduces some aspects of the chamber proceedings, has demonstrated that it is possible to conduct deliberative functions in this setting. Therefore, the focus of my comments today will be on the procedural implications of virtual sittings and on the decision-making process.
As I noted in my appearance before the committee on May 4, many of the House procedures and practices could be adapted to accommodate virtual hybrid sittings. For example, a general provision could be added to the Standing Orders to allow the Speaker, in case of emergency and following consultations with House leaders of all recognized parties, to adjust the application of any standing order or practice to permit the virtual participation of members. This would be similar to Standing Order 1.1, which allows for the participation of members with disabilities. Such a general provision would provide flexibility as technologies change. It would also limit the need to change the many references in the Standing Orders that suggest the physical presence of members.
If the House were to decide to take this approach, the Speaker would make a statement outlining the emergency and how they propose to apply the rules.
An analysis of our procedures and practices has identified four key areas that, in my view, could be adjusted through this general provision. These areas are described in the information note provided to the committee on May 13. These areas are the presence of members, the transmission of documents, the manner of participating in proceedings, and decision-making.
First, with respect to the presence of members and in keeping with the exclusive right of the House to regulate its internal affairs, the House could indicate that it considers that those who are participating by video conference in a sitting of the House or a meeting of a committee count for the purpose of quorum. This would entitle all connected members to fully participate in the deliberations of the House committee.
With regard to the second point, although the tradition is for paper copies of documents to be tabled or presented to the House, it could be determined that documents transmitted electronically are equally valid. Again, the House has already begun to take steps in this direction, having decided in 2019 to accept electronic responses to petitions and more recently to allow petitions, committee reports and other documents to be filed electronically with the clerk during the pandemic.
In terms of how members participate in the sittings of the House, certain adjustments would have to be made in order to ensure that opportunities for members to intervene are effectively maintained while keeping order and decorum. In recognizing members to participate in different categories of business, the chair is already assisted by lists submitted in advance by the parties, although members are still expected to rise in their place to be recognized when their turns come.
In a virtual or hybrid setting, the chair would continue to use these lists without relying only on a physical signal from each member wanting to intervene. For impromptu moments, such as questions and comments, we could make use of features built into the video conferencing system, such as the “raise hand” function. If members participating virtually intend to move motions for which notice is not required, they could be asked to transmit the text to the table in advance, a practice that is already occurring.
The chair would continue to have the responsibility to preserve order and decorum, ensuring, for example, that members do not use displays or props in the camera shots and that members keep their microphones off until they are recognized by the chair. However, the committee may wish to consider whether additional guidelines could assist members and the chair in preserving decorum and dignity in the House.
The way that the House makes its decisions is perhaps the most complex issue to consider. The chair would have to proceed very carefully when putting questions to the House for a voice vote or when asking for unanimous consent so as to ensure that the will of all members is properly understood.
With regard to electronic voting in the context of recorded divisions, should the House decide to implement a system to allow members to vote remotely, a number of principles must be kept in mind. The most important principle is the integrity of the voting process. Members will want to feel confident that the system is secure and failsafe and that they're the only people voting.
I understand that our technical team has developed a conceptual solution for electronic voting that uses our existing toolsets and security platforms. It could be adapted to any requirements that the House might have.
The system should allow members to know when they are voting, what they are voting on and how much time they have to vote. It must meet accessibility standards and display text in both official languages. Finally, it should allow results to be given to the chair quickly and accurately. Such a system could provide secure notifications to members whenever a recorded division is to be held, inviting them to vote using a House-managed device. Since members will be able to read the text of the motion in an application, it might not be necessary to ensure that members were connected to the virtual meeting to hear the Speaker reading the question.
Members could vote at any point during the 15- or 30-minute period while the bells are ringing.
If the House were to adopt a hybrid model where some members are present in the chamber and others are participating virtually, it will have to consider whether all members should vote using the same method, so as to ensure that all members are treated equally.
These are but a few of the details and options that the committee may want to consider regarding the issue of remote electronic voting. Similarly, should it be the will of the House, I know that our procedural and digital services experts stand ready to assist in making the necessary adjustments to our practices to accommodate remote voting and virtual participation in proceedings.
My officials and I would be pleased to answer any questions that you may have on this topic.
Thank you for having me this morning.
The staff here and in IT and in the Clerk's office worked very closely with all the MPs to make sure that everything could work. Connectivity was especially a problem in rural and remote areas. It's important that we look at this in light of, for instance, someone who has to come in to Parliament. If they come in and there's a snowstorm, or something causes a problem, it's up to them to get to Parliament to make sure they can vote. Similarly, if you're in a rural area, or you're at home and your connectivity is not that great, you can go to your office or you can go find a place where you can connect.
I can see that Ms. Blaney, for example, is probably in her office. I know that she has some issues. She is a prime example of how we can make it work.
Connectivity was one of the issues we were concerned about, but it certainly put broadband access on the front burner for all Canadians in both rural and metropolitan city areas. When we're looking at connectivity, I think we've pretty well come to the end of it. There are a couple of small exceptions where it could be a little bit of a difficulty, but overall it's been working out very well.
Our ambassadors have been working with everyone. Again, I notice that pretty well everyone has one of these headsets on, which makes a difference. It makes it easier for everyone to hear what you're saying, because we're getting a clear voice coming across. We found that with other microphones, there was an echo, because it was echoing throughout the chamber. No matter how good your microphone is, there is still that bit of a problem, and one that especially affects the interpreters.
I don't believe connectivity is a large issue, overall. Occasionally we get some glitches, but overall, connectivity is very good.
Hello, everyone. It's very nice to be with you all today and, of course, it's always lovely to see you, Chair.
The first question I have is around the Standing Orders. From what you just told us, basically there's a list of standing orders that the Clerk's office has looked at. It sounds like there's a bit of discussion about whether we should review all of those standing orders or move one standing order change that would allow the Chair to oversee that.
A request to see what standing orders would need to be modified was in our last report. I think I would still like that to come before the committee. I think that's a pretty significant question to review.
As I look through this process, one of the things I feel strongly about is that there should be an incremental approach where we evaluate what we're doing, see how it's working, and then have a process. You spoke in your report about consultations with the House leaders, but I think we need a more formal process.
Will you make sure to table with this committee all the standing orders that should be at least understood to be reviewed? If we're going to be making a recommendation on what we should do with that, we would need to know that.
The second part is how we would look at an incremental approach that would allow parties to have a review process and have that very important feedback come back to the House.
I really believe strongly that we need that evaluation process that allows all recognized parties to have a voice at the table. This is an important part of looking at our democracy.
I also think there's another thing we have to look at, which is the change of our workplace. Although we are still doing the work the best we can, and this is why we're here to study how we can do the work in the House of Commons, I just want to recognize.... You talked earlier about connectivity. Predictability matters. If I was in a different part of my riding for an emergency situation, I would not necessarily know that there was going to be a vote. I wouldn't be able to access that information. I think that is important.
The other reality is we have parenting happening. What I mean by that is there are MPs who are home-schooling their children as well as doing their parliamentary functions. If they were in Ottawa in the House, they certainly wouldn't be doing that. I think when we look at certain things like bells and some of these other standing orders, we have to recognize that.
I want to make sure there will be a process of evaluating some of these key changes. It isn't business as usual for so many of our parliamentarians, and I think we have to find a way to recognize that. That's just one of the things that I had a bit of a rant about there.
The other part I want to know about, Mr. Chair, is around connectivity and what happens "if". During a COVI committee, what is the process if somebody gets pushed off? I mean this to reflect the fact that, if we want to do something in the House, there are numbers that are required for certain things. Five people have to stand to force a vote. There are all these different functions. If somebody is knocked off, I'm wondering what the process is and whether we've done an evaluation of how often that is happening, both in committees and the COVI committee as well.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I think the biggest concern that I have is, again, Mr. Speaker, about parliamentary privilege. I'll remind those who are listening that this privilege is to ensure that members are not impeded or interfered with in any way or form in representing the electors. I've said this a number of times, Mr. Speaker, and if you've listened to any of my speeches, you know that I feel very strongly that the House does not belong to us. It belongs to the electors, who put the 338 members of Parliament there. In everything we are doing to this point, we must ensure that parliamentary privilege is protected.
I'm heartened to hear some of your comments, but in one of your notes, you mentioned this with respect to privilege and decorum:
As is the current practice, the Chair maintains order and decorum and makes decisions with respect to points of order. Therefore, the Chair can intervene on any matter of decorum on its own initiative or on a point of order raised by a member. In this regard, the virtual environment makes it possible for the Chair to mute a member’s microphone.
Now, going back to my colleague Garnett Genuis' comment about seeking the eye of the Speaker and getting the attention of the Speaker, would muting a microphone be seen as a violation of privilege, in your view? In the House, a member can at least continue to stand and state his case, even against the wishes of the Speaker; at least in the House that voice is still heard.