Minority parliaments usually aren’t a recipe for the smooth passage of legislation or other government process measures. The pursuit of an all-party agreement on how parliament will sit as Canada continues to manage the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) was tasked with studying and presenting two reports with recommendations around parliamentary duties and the COVID-19 pandemic, including the challenges of virtual voting. The intent of these reports was to provide the basis for an agreement among the parties, which would result in changes to standing orders to facilitate a functional House of Commons. While the reports have been tabled, uncertainty around the fall sitting remains high as parties continue to disagree on key issues, with electronic voting chief among them.
Not only are the logistics of a virtual Parliament being questioned, the process of determining how these decisions are made is also under scrutiny. A Point of Order was raised by the CPC Deputy Whip, John Brassard claiming that both PROC reports exceeded the Committee’s mandates from the House and therefore should be found out of order, which would send the Committee back to the drawing board. The Conservatives’ claim the PROC report goes further than focusing solely on the current pandemic, and argue that major parliamentary changes must be time limited. The NDP voiced similar concerns in their supplementary opinion appended to the final PROC report.
We understand that the Speaker will have to make a ruling on the Point of Order before anything can move forward. This ruling could happen when the House is sitting on either August 12th or 26th.
Should the PROC reports be allowed to stand, agreement amongst all parties would have to be provided to the Speaker, who has the power to implement the recommendations without having to turn it over to the House for debate and vote. Unless there’s a side deal in the works, this seems unlikely. What’s more plausible is that the House will have to debate the recommendations in the report and vote on them. For this debate to take place, the Government will have to ask the Speaker to recall the House to amend standing orders and establish a process to bring back MPs. This would need to happen well in advance of the scheduled return of Parliament in mid-September.
Given the hours of study conducted by the multi-partisan PROC committee and the ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19 requiring government attention, achieving some type of consensus on a fall sitting should be the priority for all parties. Canadians are looking to their elected officials to provide certainty and a path forward to normalcy, which is greatly helped by reliable Parliamentary activity. Hopefully, the imperative for consistency will trump partisanship and bring about a resolution quickly.