I call this meeting to order.
Good morning, everyone. Seeing that almost everyone is here, we'll get started.
Welcome to meeting number 20 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
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, 2020, 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 mentioned, the committee is now able to consider other matters, and in addition to receiving evidence, 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 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 or the selection of witnesses. On this point, the Clerk of the House has informed the whips that until the House administration finalizes a process to seamlessly switch between public and in camera proceedings within the same meeting, all virtual meetings that begin in public must remain in public until the end, and all virtual meetings that begin in camera must remain in camera until the end.
Today’s meeting is taking place by video conference, and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. Let us be aware that the webcast will always show the person speaking, rather than the entirety of the committee.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow:
Interpretation in the video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice on the bottom of your screen of either “Floor”, “English” or “French”. If you're speaking in one language, I prefer that you switch to the language in which you are speaking. If you are going to switch your languages, then please pause for a moment and switch to the language that you intend on speaking at the bottom of your screen where it says “Interpretation”. Allow for a brief pause while you're doing so.
I remind everyone that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair.
Should members need to request the floor outside their designated time for questions, they should activate their mike and state that they have a point of order.
If a member wishes to intervene on a point of order that has been raised by another member, the member should use the “Raise hand” function. This will signal to me that you're interested in speaking. To do so, please click on the “Participant” icon in the toolbar below. In that you will see a raise-hand function.
When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute. The use of headsets is strongly encouraged.
Should any technical challenges arise—for example, in relation to interpretation or a problem with your audio—please advise the chair immediately, and the technical team will work to resolve them. Please note that we may need to suspend during these times, as we need to ensure that all members are able to participate fully.
If your screen or your computer disconnects, please email me or the clerk to let us know this has taken place, and we'll immediately call you and try to resolve the issue. If it's just a matter of interpretation or sound, then you can signal in some other way in this meeting, and we'll try to suspend while we resolve the issue.
During this meeting, we will follow the same rules that usually apply to opening statements and the questioning of witnesses during our regular meetings. Just as we usually would in a regular committee meeting, we will suspend in between panels to allow the first group of witnesses to depart and the next panel to join the meeting.
Before we get started, can everyone please click on the top right corner and ensure you are on “Gallery” view so that you have a view of all the members of the committee? If you haven't been using the “Zoom” function for the witnesses when someone is speaking, as you can see around my box, there is a highlighted yellow box, so you'll know which member is speaking and how to find them in the gallery view.
The witnesses today have seven minutes for their opening statements. I believe you've all been made aware of that.
Without further ado, I would like to welcome our witnesses today.
On our first panel, we have the former Clerk of the House, Mr. Bosc. Welcome back to our committee. Thank you for being here again today.
Good morning to you, to all my fellow witnesses and to the members of the committee.
I'd like to begin my presentation with thanks for the opportunity to contribute to this important discussion. As some of you may know, I have a long-standing interest in, and concern for, the well-being of Parliament as a place where the highest expectations of Canadians for their democracy are lived up to. Fortunately for me, I had a great deal of opportunity to engage with this challenge of creating such a Parliament over my 32 years as a parliamentarian, from 1979 to 2008 as a member of Parliament and for two and a half years as an MLA in Manitoba.
By way of background, I was privileged to serve on the Special Committee on Standing Orders and Procedure, which was created as a response to the 16-day bell-ringing crisis in 1982; on the special committee on parliamentary reform that existed from 1984 to 1986, which produced what is sometimes known as the McGrath report; and on several subsequent less high-profile collaborations concerning the reform of the rules and the culture of the House of Commons.
I also had the benefit of a number of positions over the years that put me in close proximity to the way in which the rules of the House work—and sometimes don't work as well as we would like them to—serving as House leader for the NDP, as parliamentary leader, as Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and as government House leader in the Manitoba legislature.
With a great deal of interest, then, I accepted the challenge to be part of the process whereby the committee is charged with making recommendations on how to modify the Standing Orders for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic as part of an incremental approach, beginning with the hybrid sittings of the House, as outlined in the report provided to the committee by the Speaker on May 11, 2020.
When I read the report submitted by the Speaker, I was pleased to see repeated emphasis on the temporary nature of what was being proposed, as that is certainly one of the points I would want to make today. Whatever decisions are taken as a result of the pandemic, such as the decision to have the hybrid Parliament agreed upon already, and any decisions that flow from it by way of implementation or improvement on what was agreed upon, should be clearly seen as not in any way setting precedents for the post-pandemic Parliament that I am sure we all hope is in the near as opposed to distant future.
In this respect, I would urge members not to import into the debate about the hybrid Parliament preferences or proposals that they may have long supported as changes to normal parliamentary reality. I am particularly concerned about any way in which remote voting might pave the way for electronic voting in a post-pandemic Parliament, something that I recently wrote about in an article for rabble.ca. In the same article, I expressed a larger concern about the erosion of personal contact and personal interaction between MPs, within and between parties, that is a feature of various modern technologies available not just to MPs but to all Canadians.
Nevertheless, if remote or virtual voting is to take place in the hybrid Parliament, I would certainly recommend that such voting take place in ways and at times that are known in advance and are predictable. Consideration could also be given, should voting occur, to the option of party whips indicating how their members are voting on any particular division, with provision made, of course, for those who may dissent from the group decision to cast their own vote. This would not be unlike the practice that developed in my time in the House, when the whips got up and indicated how their members were voting.
In conclusion, I would emphasize that the agreement to create a hybrid Parliament was the result of a negotiation reached in the context of a looming deadline. It should be seen as something open to improvement. The return of opposition days, perhaps, or take-note debates that wouldn't require votes, or perhaps some other complementary hybrid within the hybrid that would give opposition parties more opportunity to occasionally choose the subject of debate, should be looked at as the hybrid goes forward; likewise with private members' business, and perhaps even the estimates.
My hope is certainly that all these concerns will be met, preferably by a timely return to normal parliamentary life when the pandemic ends. If that should take longer than we all hope, then hopefully the recommendations of the committee will stand Parliament in good stead.
Hi. For those of you who are unaware, I've been a journalist on Parliament Hill for almost 12 years now. I also am the author of a book called The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action
, which is a primer on civic literacy and responsible government and Westminster parliaments in Canada.
I'm guessing I've been invited here today because I've written a number of columns in recent weeks that have been in opposition to a virtual Parliament in various ways. I'll start with outlining what some of my concerns are.
My biggest concern, obviously, is that Parliament is something that works best in person. A lot of the most important work that happens in Parliament is relationship building, and that happens on the sidelines, in rooms, in lobbies and in corridors, and it's something that can't happen at all in a virtual space. That's one of the concerns that I definitely have about a longer-term hybrid environment.
As well, I'm particularly concerned because there's a long history of unintended consequences with rule changes that happen in Parliament. Some of the examples that come to mind are when we capped speaking times at 20 minutes. Instead of creating a livelier culture of debate, all it did was create a culture of MPs reading canned speeches to fill time, as opposed to actually having back-and-forth exchanges in the chamber. That's incredibly concerning to me.
Another unintended consequence was the elimination of evening sittings in the early 1990s. That meant MPs were no longer having dinner with one another in the Parliamentary Restaurant three nights a week, and as a result, the collegiality in the chamber crumbled. It's no longer the same kind of environment that it was back then.
A further example I would cite would be the decision to expel Liberal senators from caucus. The unintended consequence was basically to eliminate the institutional memory of the caucus, as well as centralize more power with the leader.
As any kind of rule changes have unintended consequences, I think we need to think very hard about what those consequences might be in this particular circumstance.
When it comes to hybrid sittings and remote voting, one of my biggest concerns among these unintended consequences is that as much as people keep saying these need to be temporary, it nevertheless was mentioned in the previous report of this committee that there should be an exploration of using these means to modernize the rules of the House of Commons. For me, that means this is essentially a Pandora's box now—that any changes we adopt, even if they are thought to be temporary, will see people who are looking for them to be made permanent. [Technical difficulty—Editor] concerns about what these rule changes might lead to.
Thank you, Madam Chair. I appreciate the opportunity to present to the committee today.
For those who don't know me, and I think most of you don't, I will start with why you may be interested in what I have to say.
I have been a lawyer for the last 30 years, based here in Nova Scotia. I was an MLA for nine years in the House of Assembly here. I was the official opposition House leader during two minority Parliaments in 2004 and 2007.
After leaving politics, I worked for the United Nations Development Programme for six years, including four as the global adviser on parliaments. For the last eight years, I've been a consultant, based in Halifax and working with different international organizations trying to build effective parliaments around the world. I've worked directly with more than 60 parliaments globally, and I've worked with MPs from more than 110 countries. I'm also an instructor at McGill University in parliamentary development.
Briefly, that will let you know my background.
There are four main points I wanted to bring up, but I think Mr. Smith and Mr. Blaikie have touched on my first one. I won't expand too much more on that. I'll just say that I agree that the personal relationships—the dialogue—are the grease that oils the machine in politics in Canada. The more we break down that relationship—I think Mr. Smith gave some examples of how that has happened, and Mr. Blaikie, in his article, has done the same—the more acrimonious you're going to find Parliament. We have only to look south of the border to see some of the challenges that it will eventually lead to. I'll leave it there, but that's just to say that I agree with them on that point.
The other one, I think, is that we are obviously in the middle of a pandemic, and we have these dialogues now. We have House leaders who talk to each other. We have party apparatus that work together as a dialogue in Parliament, but during a pandemic, I think it's even more important that we formalize that structure.
I want to bring to you the example of New Zealand, which has a Business Committee that is a formal standing committee in Parliament. In their case, it is a full-time committee. I would suggest that maybe we try it in the pandemic, because I think there might be some value in formalizing the dialogue.
The Business Committee is chaired by the Speaker. It has on it the House leaders from every recognized party. As a result, what they end up with is a consensus on the agenda, on the Order Paper or on how long debate will be on a certain bill or motion or on supply. They're able to work this out in a formal setting, but it allows for consensus.
During a pandemic, when we all should be concerned about national consensus on the way forward—and I think political partisan approaches have tended to be checked so far—I think this needs to be considered. During national emergencies like this one, the opportunity for a formal approach, where there is that dialogue in Parliament to make sure that you can work out as many issues as possible, needs to be considered.
I guess my third and fourth points are related. The third point is related to virtual voting.
I want to echo Mr. Smith's comments with regard to unintended consequences when you change the rules. I worry as well that if you allow virtual voting, there will be, as he noted, a tendency for some MPs to stay in their constituencies more often. That will directly impact that cross-party dialogue between MPs and between parties, but I think it can also be seen as a bit of a trap, if I can put it that way.
There are MPs who are perhaps more remotely located or have work-life balance issues and who may choose to do that, and if we do that, if it becomes permanent, I think we're going to end up with a two-tiered system of MPs. There will be those who come to Ottawa and engage directly with senior officials and ministers and have more influence on policy-making, and there will be those who will be more constituency-oriented and spend less time in Ottawa, and they're going to be seen differently in their ability to influence.
I think that there are unintended consequences from virtual voting. I'd like to suggest an alternative, and Mr. Blaikie brought this up briefly. It is the possibility of party block voting. Again, New Zealand and also Victoria State and Queensland State in Australia use this approach, but let me be clear to start: We already have a pretty efficient system of voting in the Canadian parliamentary system. It's voice vote.
I took a rough look at the numbers on the House of Commons records. Since 2005, 92.6% of all the votes in Parliament in the House of Commons have been voice votes. It's a very efficient way of moving things along without having to get into recorded voting. It's a very efficient way of moving things along without having to get into recorded voting. We use recorded votes sparingly. We use them during contentious moments or during very important recording moments, so I think we need to keep that voice vote as an approach.
Then you can look at using block voting instead of virtual voting when we do have recorded votes. This would mean—and this is how they do it in New Zealand and parts of Australia—that the House leader or a member from the party would stand up and say, “This many votes from my caucus will be voting yea, and this many nay.” It allows for dissension. If certain MPs want to say, “No, we don't want to be part of that block vote”, they have a way of recording their personal votes. Again, as proxy voting, it allows for the moving along of recorded votes without having to move to virtual voting. It's a procedural change, not a technical change. I think, given the efficiencies that we now have in the system with voice voting, I would worry about moving away from that. I've also seen electronic voting become very complicated in other countries. I'm happy to discuss that, if people want, as well.
In conclusion, thank you again for this opportunity. Thank you for the work of the committee, all the standing committees and the House of Commons. You've done a miraculous job of being able to technically bring this all together in a very short period of time. I monitor a lot of parliaments around the world, and Canada is now a symbol of one that can be seen as a leader in this regard.
Looking at technological and other rule changes is a good thing. It's always good to be looking, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are a lot of good things that are working right now in Parliament. We need to make sure that those are not abandoned or lost as we move forward.
You're absolutely right. The House of Commons team have done a fantastic job, in a very short period of time, of being able to manage all the changes that have been thrown at them. It's been incredible to see.
I have a couple of things before we move on to the question rounds.
First, with regard to the phone lines that some of the members' staff listen to, there is a bit of difficulty connecting those phone lines to the Zoom meeting today so that they can continue. Otherwise, they can turn on ParlVU and try to follow along through ParlVU until we get that fixed and up and running. I'll let you know if the phone lines become available. Until then, they should try to watch ParlVU and follow along that way.
Next we have Mr. Blaikie and Mr. Smith.
The translators are saying that your sound is not as clear as they would like it to be, so perhaps, Mr. Blaikie, if you could move closer to your device, that may solve the problem.
Well, I have been concerned for a long time about the unintended consequences of electronic voting. I say this as someone who was part of the McGrath committee back in 1985-1986, which initially recommended electronic voting. The reason the committee did that at the time was that we were hoping for a Parliament in which there would be less party discipline on a number of issues, and we thought that electronic voting might facilitate that, in the sense that it would get rid of the situation of members who wanted to dissent from the position of their party having to stand up and listen to the applause from other parties or look at the frowns on the faces of their colleagues.
That was the intention, but over the years, as it wasn't immediately implemented, obviously, I came to the view that one of the unintended consequences—and certainly other witnesses this morning have spoken about it—would be that we would lose that time in the parliamentary life when the bells are ringing, people are on the floor and a lot of business is done.
When the bells are ringing and people are gathering, it's a time for members to go over and talk to people on the other side or to talk to cabinet ministers to whom they might have no other access. I felt that the price for adopting electronic voting was just too high, and so I changed my mind on it. As the House leader for the NDP, I was often able to stand in the way of its becoming a reality. I continue to hold that position.
What I had to say today was that if people have the agenda that they want electronic voting in Parliament, they should not use the pandemic as a way of importing an agenda they would have in a normal Parliament into this particular temporary measure. That was the point I was trying to make today. I'm not accusing anybody of that; I'm just saying that it is a danger and perhaps a temptation on some people's part. Let's look at what we need for the pandemic, and when we get back to a normal Parliament, we can continue to have these other discussions.
First, I would say that I agree with Mr. Blaikie that the changes made so far relate to a pandemic situation. I think that has to be the lens through which you look at this particular exercise. The speed with which the hybrid model for the committee has been adopted, to me, is not a particular concern, but as Mr. Blaikie pointed out, if the tendency or the temptation is to make these changes permanent, that's a whole other issue.
In terms of voting, to me the missing piece in all of this right now that's preventing a full return of the House—a hybrid House, I mean—is voting and figuring out how to vote. If I had one wish, it would be that the committee find a way, find a consensus, on how voting could take place so that the House could properly resume.
I'm so grateful to have all of you here today. I think this is such an important subject. Nothing, in my opinion, can replace the in-person process of Parliament. I know that during this time, even for myself, the people I know, the people I've created relationships with.... I've continued to do that work, but there are folks I don't know, and unless I'm in committee, I don't necessarily see my co-MPs from different parties. When we're on the COVID committee, that's not a time when I'm going to have informal discussions with them about my personal life, when I'm talking to up to 338 members of Parliament. I just want to recognize that.
We also know that the reality is that we have anywhere up to two years, they're saying, until a vaccine is created, and as we look at this huge country and the travelling across it for our members, I think that's a significant concern.
I've heard a lot of people talk about proxy voting, whips voting on behalf of their party. I think voting, as Mr. Bosc said earlier, is pivotal in this process. We don't know how long it's going to last.
One of the questions I'd like to ask, and I'll ask Mr. Blaikie first, is about the tools we already have. Right now we're using Zoom. If we had virtual voting where members said yea or nay and their face was on the screen, which is similar to what we're using right now, I am wondering how you would feel about that as a next step after proxy voting.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Again, thank you to our witnesses today. I think there have been some great insights so far.
I'm going to start with a very brief comment. I know that Mr. Smith mentioned, in the context of the Senate, the kind of institutional knowledge that comes with that. I think that's something we need to bear in mind as we go forward with this study. There are many in the current government, the vast majority, who've never served in opposition. In the same way, there are many in the opposition who have never served in government.
Bearing in mind the context of government versus opposition, it's great to have institutional memory on this panel today with people like Mr. Blaikie, who served in the House for many years. Also, of course, we have Mr. Bosc, who I believe started in 1986 with the House of Commons and literally wrote the book on procedure. It's great to have that context.
Mr. Bosc, I know that many of us in the House have appreciated your wise counsel over the years. Certainly, you are missed around the precinct, so we appreciate you being with us today. I will start with a question for you.
There's been a suggestion that perhaps there should be a standing order change that would be a catch-all, a “Standing Order 1.2” that would give the Speaker the ability to adjust procedures in the House of Commons in the context of an emergency or a pandemic.
I want to get your thoughts on whether it should be done as a single standing order change, which gives a blank cheque, for lack of a better word, or whether it should be articulated as a series of changes that would apply in the context of a pandemic or a national emergency. Could give us your thoughts on that?
Thanks, Mr. Nater, for your kind words.
On that point, I fail to see how the committee or even the House would agree to give the Speaker such broad powers. I mean, it's possible, but in the wake of October 22, the attack on Parliament on that day, former speaker Scheer and I agreed that it was necessary for the Speaker to have at least the power, as is found in New Zealand, to change the time of the meeting of the House. A letter was sent to the procedure committee. No action was taken. With former speaker Regan, we again sent a similar letter to the committee, and the committee was unable to reach a consensus on the point.
That was a very small example of the Speaker maybe needing some kind of authority to go so much further, to give the Speaker the authority and the power to change how the House works, top to bottom. I fail to see how the committee, or even the House, would agree to that kind of a change.
I'm not sure who should speak first on this.
You used the phrase, “unanimous consent among the recognized parties”, and I would just say for the record that, having been in Parliament from 1993 to 1997, I didn't belong to a party that was recognized by the House of Commons, although I did belong to a party that was recognized by very many Canadians.
If unanimous consent is to be the bar, and I'm not sure that it need be, regarding that as consent arrived at only between recognized parties leaves members out on occasion, as it did in 1993 to 1997 with nine members of the NDP. Often, when unanimous consent was sought and there hadn't been consultation with those of us without party status, unanimous consent was not reached because not all members of Parliament had been consulted.
I would just urge that when you're talking about unanimous consent—and whether the committee wants to recommend that or not is another matter—independents and members of Parliament who belong to non-recognized parties, if there are such in the House today, should be taken into consideration.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Thank you to our witnesses today for some really good information and some good perspective.
Mr. Blaikie, your appearance here has at least generated one more sale of your book The Blaikie Report. When I saw you were presenting at committee I ordered it, and I appreciate all your experience over the years.
Mr. Gerretsen's point highlights a concern I have, and I think other members of the committee have—you've all mentioned this in your opening statements—as we talk about the modernization of Parliament. Is this study and the timeline we've been dealt an appropriate study to talk about permanent modernization? We talked about adding in cameras and things that have been done in translation. Would this process be the right way of doing it? Would this timeline be something you're comfortable with? Or should we be doing this when we get into a post-pandemic situation with permanent changes like this? I worry again about these studies we've been tasked with, remote voting in this current context. Do you have any concerns?
Mr. Smith, I had to smile at your article that said the majority of the committees never let a crisis go to waste. Does anybody have any comments about that, our timeline and the permanency we're talking about?
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
I want to thank all of our witnesses for being here.
I want to repeat what I said prior to the meeting; it's good to see Mr. Blaikie on here. I had a chance to serve with him in previous Parliaments, and he's always been seen as a voice of wisdom and integrity. Of course, all the other witnesses as well have similar reputations.
Let me clarify something, because in some of the testimony today I'm hearing a mixture of worry about the permanence of changes and also interim changes. We need to be very clear here. The purpose of this committee, the purpose of the study, is to study temporary measures under a pandemic, under an exceptional circumstance.
I understand the reluctance and the fear about permanent changes and unintended consequences, and I know Mr. Blaikie has been clear about this, but I'm going to ask a question to Mr. Bosc.
If we agree on proxy, block or voice voting, and then a single or a couple of MPs object that it's an infringement on their privilege, what can we do? Could that be ruled as an infringement on an MP's privilege who could not be there in person?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I have just one question, and I'd like to hear from any of the witnesses who care to respond. I'm going to preface it quickly, though.
The witnesses have talked a lot about their reluctance around any permanent changes. I, too, wish to point out that we are in a unique situation, and we are trying to fix a problem. All of us want to return to Parliament Hill, but some of my colleagues can't for health or other reasons.
Witnesses also talked about electronic voting—seeing as that falls within our current study—and the fact that it prevents personal interaction and discussions with members from other parties. I've heard little, however, in the way of tangible solutions in the current circumstances. I'd like to know where the witnesses stand on that front. Something to consider is the fact that the House leader meetings, which usually take place on Tuesdays, have all been cancelled. They provide an excellent opportunity for dialogue. I'd like to hear recommendations on how to improve the current situation, which we all have to deal with.
Let me say that I take your point: Do the people of Vancouver Island really want their members of Parliament going to Ontario and coming back every week if we were to resume normal sittings in the context of the pandemic ongoing?
I would also say, apropos of your question, that whatever people think of what the federal Parliament is doing, it is struggling to continue to be a parliament in a pandemic context, which is more than you can say about, for instance, the Manitoba legislature, where the premier just adjourned it, and there's not going to be a real legislature, virtual legislature or any kind of legislature at all until the fall. In Manitoba, you have a low-risk environment, and you have a situation where most members don't have to travel very far. They certainly don't have to get on planes, most of them, to come to the legislature.
For the Canadian Parliament, in spite of the criticisms that have been levelled at it—sometimes you see these things on Facebook or on other social media about MPs not working—the fact of the matter is that they are working. They're working in their constituencies, and they're working in the context of this committee and other contexts to make sure that Parliament continues in some meaningful way. I hope that the recommendations of the committee will help that along greatly.
Thank you. I think that was a good way to end off today's meeting.
I'd like to thank all the witnesses for being here today. I hope you are all doing well, wherever you are.
Mr. Smith, I look forward to seeing your commentary, if you have any, after this.
Of course, Mr. Bosc, I'm sure you'll be here at some future committee meeting once again.
Thank you, to all the witnesses, for being here, and thank you to all the members for your participation.
We're going to switch to panel two now. We will suspend until 12:30 p.m. Let's be back at 12:30 p.m. sharp for the second panel of provincial legislatures. Thank you.
Welcome back. We're going to get started.
Can everyone click on the top right-hand corner of their screen and ensure that they are in gallery view? With this view, you should be able to participate in a grid view and see all of the participants at one time.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you're ready to speak, you can click on the microphone to activate your mike.
I remind you that all comments should be addressed through the chair. Interpretation in this video will work very much like a regular committee meeting. You have a 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 the other, you will need to switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language that you are speaking. You may want to allow for a short pause when switching between languages.
When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, please ensure that your microphone is on mute. The use headsets is strongly encouraged.
We can begin with our opening statements from the three witnesses we have before us today.
Mr. Farnworth, you have provided a written copy of your opening statement, which will make it quite easy for the interpreters to be able to interpret, even if there are sound challenges. We're only worried about the question and answer period, but hopefully they'll be able to troubleshoot your issue by then.
Welcome to all the witnesses. Thank you. I'm sure you're very busy with your parliamentary duties in your provinces. We are very happy to have you here with us to share your insights and your expertise.
First off, we have the Honourable Siobhan Coady, Minister of Natural Resources and government House leader from the House of Assembly of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to appear before you this afternoon.
Thank you for the invitation to appear before the committee. It is certainly a privilege to be with you today and to see some of my former colleagues from the House of Commons. I value the role of this committee as a former member of Parliament and as government House leader and Minister of Natural Resources in Newfoundland and Labrador. I am also chair of the Select Committee of Rules and Procedures Governing Virtual Proceedings.
These are indeed challenging times. Two and a half months ago, the idea of having Parliament meet in anything other than its traditional form was not contemplated. Today many legislatures around the world, and indeed here in Canada, are preparing various means of allowing assembly.
As Sam Cawthorn once said, “Crisis moments create opportunity. Problems and crisis ignite our greatest creativity and thought leadership as it forces us to focus on things outside the norm.” Indeed, that's what all of us are doing
Our House adjourned on March 12, 2020, for a regular constituency week break during the spring sitting and was scheduled to resume on March 23. Before adjourning, we were smart enough at the time, I guess, to put forward a motion, which was passed, that allowed an extension of the adjournment by the Speaker if advised by government that it was in the public interest. At that time, COVID was just starting to appear in the province and across the country.
Effective March 18, the Minister of Health and Community Services here in Newfoundland and Labrador declared COVID-19 a public health emergency under the Public Health Protection and Promotion Act, and it continues in effect today. As a result, the House did not resume as scheduled on March 23.
Special one-day sittings were held on March 26 and May 5 to deal with business of urgent public importance in this unprecedented situation. The House met on those days with a minimum quorum of members. Our House of Assembly has 40 members and a minimum quorum of 10, including the Speaker. By consent, routine business was waived and the House proceeded immediately to notices of motion and orders of the day, except on May 5, when we allowed for oral questions. The public galleries were closed to visitors, and House officials in the chamber were kept to a bare minimum.
When the House met on May 5, it passed a resolution to establish the Select Committee of Rules and Procedures Governing Virtual Proceedings. The resolution provides authority for the committee to determine the manner in which virtual proceedings of the House of Assembly may be held. It provides that virtual proceedings may include a proceeding of the House with any combination of members physically present in the chamber and members present remotely by other technological means, including video conference or audio-only platforms.
The select committee was established due to the exigencies of the COVID-19 pandemic to identify how members may fulfill their parliamentary duties as legislators and to provide for accountability and transparency while complying with public health guidance. The select committee is composed of the six members of our Standing Orders Committee, the House leaders of the opposition caucuses and one of our two independent members. To date, the select committee has had five meetings, all of which were conducted by virtual means, which is a first for our legislature.
There were a few key principles that led our deliberations. All members are duly elected under separate writs of election and all enjoy the parliamentary privilege necessary to do their work and represent their constituents. Any model of a hybrid virtual Parliament must take into account the individual privileges of members and the collective privileges of the House as a whole.
We also recognize that the mace is integral to the functioning of the House of Assembly and is the symbol of authority of the House and the Speaker through the House. The mace must be present for the House to be properly constituted.
The committee has heard that House proceedings can be distinguished as scrutiny proceedings, which are questioning proceedings, and substantive proceedings, wherein decisions are made. Substantive proceedings include voting, which is a core duty performed by parliamentarians. This invites more complex procedural, practical and legal considerations.
The committee has discussed such items as virtual meeting platforms and technology requirements across a very large geographic area; considerations for scrutiny versus substantive or decision-making proceedings; implications for privilege; logistical elements, such as attire, appropriate background displays and training for members; procedural elements, such as place of speaking, recognition of speakers, how routine proceedings like members' statements, ministerial statements, oral questions, notices of motion, tabling of documents and petitions are conducted in a hybrid setting; and the process of debate on resolutions and legislation in a hybrid setting. We will implement procedures to provide speaking order on the various elements in advance.
With respect to voting, the select committee has considered and discussed options, but we have not yet reached a final decision.
The House of Assembly has integrated video conferencing with the broadcast system and conducted rehearsals that were successful.
The select committee must report no later than July 1, 2020. Once it tables its report, the resolution provides that the report will be deemed adopted by the House.
The House will convene again on June 9, with all members physically present implementing special measures to accommodate appropriate physical distancing and compliance with public health guidance. We will have 34 members present in the chamber, four in the Speaker’s gallery and one in the public gallery. All members will have microphones and will be able to participate fully. We can confirm that members will be required to wear masks when moving about the chamber and the precinct. Masks will not be required when members are seated at their desks or speaking.
The public gallery and Speaker’s gallery will be closed to the public and employees. The press gallery will be open with a cap on the maximum number of media attending at one time to ensure appropriate physical distancing. Only those employees who are needed on site will be in the building.
There is an approved plan that will require adjustments to the chamber that are more significant, such as the installation of plexiglass, which will not be ready in time for next week’s sitting, mainly due to a procurement issue and delays, of course. This will allow all members to be in the chamber at one time. Public Health officials were engaged when planning the various chamber configurations, and approval was sought from the chief medical officer.
While the House resumes in person next week, the select committee will continue with its task of determining the manner in which the House may conduct virtual proceedings.
In terms of B.C.'s experience, we have seen cross-party collaboration on the arrangements for the special March 23 sitting, ongoing parliamentary committee meetings and the hybrid summer session. It's been a very productive relationship with opposition House leader Mary Polak and third party House leader Sonia Furstenau. I want to thank both of them for their advice and input.
As well, B.C.'s clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Kate Ryan-Lloyd, and her team have done outstanding work in providing members with the procedural tools, technologies, and health and safety measures we need to serve our constituents in this unprecedented time.
On March 23 we had a special sitting of the Legislative Assembly. During the regularly scheduled March 5 to March 23 adjournment, it became clear that the Legislative Assembly needed to meet urgently to consider and authorize new spending and legislative measures to respond to COVID-19. I worked with the other House leaders on arrangements for a half-day special sitting on March 23. The opposition was consulted on the content of the legislation going forward.
It was an all-party representation, with 14 members attending in person. We were physically distant in the chamber, with reduced staff and enhanced cleaning protocols. We had a deputy chair of the committee of the whole presiding over the proceedings, as both the Speaker and Deputy Speaker were self-isolating due to recent travel. We adopted a motion that allowed members to speak and to vote from a seat other than their assigned place for the day's sitting to allow for physical distancing. We continued daily routine business, but it was streamlined to question period and reports from committees.
Members considered and approved the 2020-21 supplementary estimates of $5 billion to support the government's COVID-19 action plan, and passed a related supply act. A bill to provide workers with unpaid job-protected leave due to COVID-19, as well as three days of unpaid sick leave, was given careful scrutiny and adopted at all stages. Our adjournment motion allowed for the location and means of House sittings to be altered due to an emergency situation or public health measures by agreement of the Speaker and the House leaders of each recognized caucus.
British Columbia decided soon after the pandemic hit to move to a 100% virtual environment for parliamentary committee meetings. Our ability to do so quickly built on our successful experience with holding committee meetings by teleconference platforms, including Skype. Our provincial Constitution Act provides that committees may meet as they determine, unless there is explicit direction from the House.
We looked at teleconferencing options and ultimately decided to use the enhanced version of Zoom. We found it accessible, user-friendly and cost-effective. Plus, the enhanced version includes additional security features. In many cases, members were already using Zoom for virtual caucus and constituency meetings.
Our staff worked with committee chairs, deputy chairs and members to establish clear protocols for the conduct of meetings, to test the Zoom platform and to conduct trial runs. On March 30, B.C.'s first entirely virtual committee meeting took place. Two committees currently holding our first virtual public meetings are the annual budget consultations of stakeholders across the province and the committee that does the statutory review of the personal privacy protection act. As well, the children and youth and public accounts committees are currently meeting, and there are regular public and in camera meetings of B.C.'s parliamentary management board, the Legislative Assembly Management Committee.
Going forward for the summer, as government House leader, I am working with the Speaker and other House leaders on a plan to recall the Legislative Assembly for hybrid summer sittings. This plan will build on the March 23 experience of sitting with smaller numbers from all parties, plus participation of other members via Zoom.
The goal of the hybrid session is to ensure proceedings, as far as possible, involve a parity of treatment between members participating remotely and members participating in person in the legislative chamber. The House will facilitate active participation of as many members as possible from all caucuses and reflect broad regional representation from the province.
The summer sitting is expected to complete the 2020 budget debate, consider budget legislation and other government bills, along with providing government accountability. Key procedural elements, such as seeking recognition from the chair to speak, moving a motion and introducing a bill, making a member's statement, participating in question period or tabling a document will all be elements of a typical sitting day.
We are looking at procedural adaptions that will be subject to agreement by House leaders and approval by the House, which include hybrid summer sittings June 22 to possibly mid-August. This would include a proposed hybrid House, which would sit Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with participation by members in the chamber and online via Zoom. It would also include a virtual committee of supply on Thursdays and Fridays to complete the estimates supply process. Members will be fully participating virtually in those proceedings.
Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to participate in the very important work of your committee.
In British Columbia, as Mike said, we have benefited from a generally collaborative approach to management of the House. This collaboration has been even more pronounced as we face the challenge of carrying on the business of the people during a time of pandemic-driven restrictions.
On March 23, in an unprecedented one-day sitting of the House, we passed interim supply for government for nine months and moved important pandemic response legislation through all stages in one day. This was accomplished with the agreement of the official opposition and the third party. In order to make this possible, government provided to the opposition the draft legislation in advance, on a confidential basis.
On June 22, the British Columbia legislature will resume its spring session using a hybrid format. Members will be able to participate in person or online, with a designated maximum number allowed in the chamber at any given time. In preparation for this unprecedented session, I have participated in two simulations or mock sittings. While there are still some issues to be resolved, I’m confident we will be able to approximate a typical session experience for all members, as well as the public and press gallery.
Throughout the many planning discussions, by far the most important principle we have maintained is the right for every member to participate equally. It is important to note that with the exception of executive council, in other words cabinet members, no member is part of government. All members sit as representatives of their constituencies first and then may choose to align themselves with a political party within a caucus. They may choose to sit as an independent.
It is my belief that this feature of our parliamentary system, although widely misunderstood, should form the foundation of any changes made in order to adapt to the necessary health restrictions under which we currently find ourselves. It underscores the importance of this committee’s deliberations and, in my view, should be the starting point for any consideration of modified Standing Orders.
I thank you for your kind attention and I look forward to your questions.
We're just keeping everyone on their toes today.
Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you to our guests today. It's great to hear the experiences from our provincial counterparts, whom I think are often great examples of where we can learn and where we can get ideas and advice from.
Very briefly, off the top, I want to say thank you to Minister Coady for mentioning the importance of the mace. I think that's an important ceremonial function, but it's also symbolic in terms of the power of our Parliament or the legislature, as the case may be. I appreciate that, Minister.
As well, I want to say thank you to each of our representatives today for talking about the collaborative approach among government and opposition parties. I think that's absolutely essential.
Ms. Polak, I think you mentioned a little about how some of that back and forth worked, and I think that's essential, but I want to get your input. As an opposition House leader, how essential is it going forward that any of these changes that are implemented are done with that consensus among the recognized parties?
Certainly, we've collaborated quite well together and, as I said, when we passed the motion to set up the select committee, we made sure that we had representation from the various entities within the House. We ensured that we had an independent member, the third party and the opposition, so that we accommodated everyone's concerns and wishes.
We have been meeting collaboratively, talking about how we ensure the privileges of members of the House of Assembly and how we ensure a well-functioning House. We, as well, have done a kind of mock parliament utilizing staff, actually, to see how the flow would be, but again, it takes that essential co-operation. I have to know, as House leader, who is speaking next. I have to know how we integrate between the virtual Parliament and, in the hybrid sittings, someone sitting in the House of Assembly. It takes a bit more co-operation. It takes a bit more collaboration. It takes a lot of almost scripting in terms of “Who do you need for question period?” or “Who is going to speak to these bills?”
There is always the question of privilege. Any member can speak at any time, and we have to find the mechanism and means to ensure that can occur.
Thank you, Madam Chair. I appreciate that.
This question is for both the representatives from Newfoundland and Labrador as well as B.C.
I understand in British Columbia, if the news reports are correct, that in addition to people being physically present in the chamber, there will also be committee room space available within your Legislative Assembly building where people could participate by Zoom within the precinct. I just wanted your clarification on that.
To Minister Coady, you mentioned that there would be, I believe, four members sitting in the Speaker's gallery and one in the public gallery. It seems like a relatively small number needed up there. Is that because the floor of your assembly is large enough to accommodate that space?
Those are the two questions for our witnesses. Thank you.
Certainly we realize we're not through the COVID pandemic yet.
We're concerned that, as we keep hearing from public health officials, there might be a second or third wave and we want to ensure we have a virtual capability, especially coming into the fall. We have not passed our budget yet. We have interim supply until the end of the September. With an abundance of caution and making sure we have that virtual, potential opportunity, we can have all members of the House of Assembly involved.
That's the motivation behind it. We keep hearing that we don't have a vaccine yet, so we're making sure we have that availability even in the likelihood of something else happening. As we continue to evolve in the House of Assembly and in parliamentary procedure, the possibility is that you may use a virtual Parliament for reasons other than a pandemic.
I'll leave it there, but we want to make sure there is an abundance of caution and that we have an alternative.
In our simulation, we practised this with some people in the chamber and some people virtually. The roll call vote worked exceptionally well. It does take quite a lot of time, but that's a small price to pay for making sure that everyone has a chance to participate.
Where we are still challenged and are trying to work out the bugs is on a voice vote. How do you conduct a voice vote when Zoom selects out the speaking voice of only one or two members and then slots them in? You get this cascade of “aye”, “aye”, “aye”, instead of the one vote. We have a few ideas as to how to do that, but voting on substantive issues, where you would typically have the bells ring and people come, certainly involves everyone.
The way we are considering it at this stage is that we have duty teams, some in the House and some virtually. If members are not on that team and they are called to vote, they would have access to Zoom in their offices, even if they're at the legislature, so they could vote there, but it would be a roll call vote with no one excluded.
Again, there are bugs still to be worked out on the voice vote.
We are looking at introducing a sessional order, so that the changes will only apply for this session of Parliament. It's been done very much in collaboration and co-operation with the opposition House leaders, in terms of how we make this work.
What worked in the March 23 session, and what has the provincial health officer told us that she wants to see in terms of the capacity in the chamber and the capacity of staff to maintain proper social distancing?
Having been in opposition, I know that the opposition members want question period; they want to make sure they have the ability to scrutinize legislation. My job in government is to ensure that the government's agenda goes through. One of the key things we did last time was to, on a confidential basis, share the legislation we wanted to get done on that day so that there were no surprises. That's the approach we've taken. As much as possible, it's to keep the sessional order similar to Standing Orders so that everyone can understand what it is.
The biggest change I think is in terms of voting. We will be deferring votes to a set time of the day, so that all members know that if the votes are taking place at six o'clock, they need to be in the chamber or on the Zoom screen to be able to vote. That's probably the biggest change that we've initiated.
There are still lots of other things to work out, but that's how it's taking place.
One of the things we've learned just in regular sessions is that members like structure.
In our House, everyone has their duty time. You have from 10 until noon, two until four. We can't expect members to sit in front of a screen for eight hours; they're just not going to do it.
What you can do is to work with the whips' offices, to tell the caucus that members have their duty time, and “During that duty time, if you're not in the chamber, you will be in front of the screen, whether in your office or at home, and the whips will be ensuring that is taking place.” That is going to give members the flexibility they need at home to deal with those issues.
In our case, it's a bit of an improvement. Previous to this, because we're a minority, we weren't allowed to leave the chamber because a vote could take place at any time. Now, with votes being deferred to a set time every day, members will be able to leave the chamber or leave the buildings, which many are quite looking forward to, for lunches and such.
Madam Chair, unfortunately I wasn't able to be at the last meeting. I know there was some committee business then and we dealt with a bit of this. I have some concerns about the plan that came out of that, for sure. I know I'm not the only member who does.
We're rushing this very quickly. We are packing panels. As you've indicated, there's one with eight witnesses. I'm glad to see that this will be broken down further. We're packing some panels pretty darn tightly, and I fail to understand what the big rush is to do this by June 11, or whenever we want to finish having panels. I'm just not clear on why we need to rush this so quickly. Why wouldn't we take the time to get this right?
I want to make it clear that this is not an attempt to try to stall anything. Why are we rushing this so quickly, though? We're talking about some pretty significant change here. Why couldn't we take the time that's needed to hear from people?
I know that we've been given this June 23 date. Having said that, I'm not sure why we couldn't, as a committee, choose to extend beyond that date. Parliament wouldn't sit after that until mid-September, so I don't know why we feel the need to be so rushed. Maybe that was explained at the last meeting, but it is certainly unclear to me. I know it is to some others on the committee as well. Perhaps we could get some kind of response to that.
I think we need to slow down and hear from witnesses properly. Having eight witnesses on one panel is absolutely ridiculous. Even having four, five or six on a panel is. When you have an hour and a half, you don't get any time to hear from these people or ask them questions. I just don't get why we're in such a rush.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
The clerk did inform us at the last meeting, when Mr. Richards was not present, that we are required to return a report by the deadline given to us. If that report includes a comment that we perhaps need more time, then that's a hurdle we can get to when we get to that point, but at the very least, we need to provide a report.
The deadline of June 23 was adopted by the House. It was voted on by all members who were present. My understanding is that it was only the Conservative Party that voted against it, so at least the Bloc and the NDP have agreed to the June 23 deadline, in addition to the Liberal Party.
The only thing I would add is that I have no problem hearing from good, solid witnesses about how we do this, but the reality of the situation is that the first panel we had today—and my understanding is that majority were “conservative” witnesses put forward by the Conservative Party—were just talking about whether or not we should be doing it. We're well beyond that; that ship has sailed. Parliament has decided that we're going to do it, and they specifically say how we're going to do it, not if.
Perhaps, as the steering committee or the subcommittee, we need to go back and revisit who these witnesses are and try to get a determination as to whether or not they're going to be providing constructive input on how we make this happen. We wasted, in my opinion, 90 minutes today with witnesses who offered very little in terms of the how—
In my opinion, that was just a little bit of grandstanding there, because in no way whatsoever did I infer that the witnesses or the individuals who came forward were in any way not upstanding individuals who contribute a lot to our Parliament in some cases, our democracy in others.
What I was referring to was the fact that the testimony they offered, in my opinion—which is a debatable point, fair enough, but certainly not a point of order—was not testimony that can be used to help us to establish how we go about doing what we need to do.
We can continue to argue and grandstand over this, or we can get down to the work we've been tasked to do by the House of Commons, and I choose the latter.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I just want to let the committee know that I have an urgent meeting in two minutes and I will need to go. We are going to attempt to get somebody in here to fill in for me.
I also just want to say that I did find the testimony this morning very helpful. I thought it pinpointed some key issues that I have felt.
As for the conversation on the next steps, I'm hoping that we'll soon hear if we can have those extra days. One of my biggest concerns with this timeline is what we experienced last time. I found it quite discombobulating to have to write a dissenting report to a report that I couldn't physically look at. Given the hard work of all the clerks, interpreters and translators for us, I'm not saying anything negative about their incredible work, but it was concerning to me to have to do that. It was so last minute.
I hope that as committee members, we evaluate as we go through the process and that we're not afraid to give an interim report that extends our time, if that is what we need to do. This is a serious issue—I just want us to take it that way.
We are talking about our democracy. We cannot undermine how important this is and that we do get it right. I think the warning about opening up Pandora's box is something we should consider, but we also have to address the reality that immunization from this—a vaccine—is not coming for a long time, and we want to make sure that all of our members have the ability to participate in a meaningful way.
As we move through this process, I hope we all remember and look at the example we just saw from some of our provincial counterparts of collaboration and working together, and not to take this as an opportunity to refer to other members' witnesses in a negative way. I think that is just something about collaboration that we should all consider.
Thank you, everyone. I am going to have to go, but I'm going to work really hard at getting somebody in to continue this conversation with you.
I know that Ms. Blaney has had to leave.
There was an issue that by Mr. Genuis at the last meeting. I did say that I would come back with an explanation of what may have occurred during that time.
Has Mr. Richards also left this meeting? No, Mr. Richards is here as well. Okay, we have some of the Conservatives members.
I want to just address that issue so that during committee business at the next meeting we can deal with the work plan ahead.
Basically, Mr. Genuis—for those of you who weren't here—mentioned that he was cut off from the meeting for approximately 10 minutes, so I'll just take a moment to address that. The last meeting was on June 2. He indicated to the committee that during the in camera portion of that meeting, starting at approximately 12:47 p.m. and for a duration of approximately 10 minutes, his House of Commons computer stopped working and stopped responding, and as a result, he was disconnected from the meeting. He indicated that this technical issue prevented him from effectively carrying out his important work in this committee.
At the time, I committed to following that up and learning more about what had happened. The digital services and real property service of the House of Commons, the DSRP, has confirmed that the machine had not been responding and that, regrettably, his system appears to have crashed at that time. I understand that a DSRP IT ambassador has already reached out to Mr. Genuis to see if there are any proactive steps that can be taken to hopefully avoid this situation from occurring next time.
As I've stated many times in my opening statement, should a technical problem occur, members and witnesses are reminded to contact the IT ambassadors right away. They are available before, during and after the meeting, but it's mainly during the meeting that they are there. Please let us know next time you get disconnected so that we can try to handle this issue in real time or suspend the meeting temporarily so that we can take care of the issue so that everyone can participate. The contact information for the technical support team is included in the log-in information that is sent to members before each meeting, as well as on the Source site.
In addition, when issues arise, the IT ambassadors will inform the clerk, who can then advise me of the problem. In this case, had the support team been informed of the situation by Mr. Genuis, by his caucus colleagues, by his staff or by the IT support, they could have shared this information with me. At that time, I could have advised the committee or even taken the appropriate action, such as temporarily suspending the meeting, much like we do when the interpretation system is not working. Should any other members face a similar disruption during a meeting going forward, I would ask them to immediately let the clerk, the support staff or myself know so that the appropriate action can be taken in the future. As members know, while relatively rare, it is possible that computers and internet connections can malfunction, and other technical glitches can occur from time to time. While we have a robust infrastructure and support system in place, this is unfortunately one of those challenges that we are all navigating in this new virtual environment. We also know that little technical issues do arise in committee rooms from time to time as well.
In all of these cases, as chair, I remain mindful of this, and I am ready to work with all members of the committee to ensure that the proceedings may take place with as few technical issues as possible and to deal with them as they may arise from time to time. I hope that this clarifies the matter for all of the members and that if there are any other issues, you will bring them to my attention, either now or in the future.
That is what occurred during that meeting. Hopefully, the members can also advise Mr. Genuis of that matter. We are still in public, so he will also be able to take a look at the blues of the meeting or listen to the recorded meeting itself.
Is there anything else that anyone would like to say before we adjourn for today? All right.
We will see you at the next meeting for international witnesses, and we will discuss the work plan then as well.