Nothing is more obvious these days than the reality that the world we live in is changing, almost, it seems, in the blink of an eye. Particularly now, as we endure the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, we face new and uncomfortable norms such as self-isolation, social distancing, working from home, safer forms of greeting each other, in many instances unemployment, and certainly different ways in doing our jobs and going about our daily lives.
We all look forward to the day when everything returns to “normal” but the real challenge, the hard question, will be to determine what the “new normal” is going to be like. Not unlike wars, pandemics change things. World order is challenged, alliances change, customs change, and priorities change. Most significantly, those in power inevitably seek more power and seldom, once they have it, are they eager to give it up.
We have already seen signs of this, boldly in the United States, more subtly here in Canada. In the U.S., President Donald Trump has made no secret of the fact that he believes he has ultimate authority (one definition of a dictator) when it comes to managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in its total inaccuracy, it will take him less than a nanosecond to believe that he can apply that to almost anything he wants to do. The real terror is that he has stacked the Supreme Court to the extent that they could back him up.
Here in Canada, we should not forget that the Trudeau Government, in introducing legislation intended solely to offer much-needed relief to Canadians adversely affected by the COVID-19 virus, attempted to slip through what was effectively a suspension of Parliament for almost two years. Without a diligent Opposition, this would have occurred.
Democracy, to be effective and not to be weakened, requires oversight. Perhaps to their surprise, this is not the primary responsibility of the media, especially not one subsidized by the government. Rather, it is the legal responsibility of Parliament and provincial legislatures across Canada. That does not negate cooperation, especially in times of crisis, but as well it does not obviate the need for constructive oversight and criticism.
In this part of the world, we are fortunate that both Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Ford have exhibited effective leadership skills during the current pandemic. Both strong partisans, they have put all that aside to deal with tough issues brought on by COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean that they are always right. Nor does it mean that they, or their governments, should duck oversight and accountability or prevent or minimize the ability of other legislators, regardless of their political affiliation, to play their elected role and offer their own alternate solutions. In Canada, the parliamentary process remains the bedrock of our democracy and it must not be trivialized or weakened.
Elizabeth May, former leader of the Green Party of Canada and still effectively their spokesperson, doesn’t get that. While holding only three seats in the 338 seat House of Commons, in practical terms she is giving Canadians only two choices. Either reduce Parliament to a virtual Zoom show where accountability and oversight will be next to impossible, or force all of Parliament to convene, resulting in inevitable health issues for Parliamentarians and support staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is the background on this.
Under current regulations, Parliament must reconvene in full force on Monday unless there is unanimous consent by all members of the House of Commons to suspend the rules and agree to an alternate format to keep Parliament going. Twice since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Parliament has met with minimum representation to respect social distancing in order to pass important legislation related to current circumstances. This was done with unanimous consent and it also allowed input and oversight by opposition parties.
Now Elizabeth May wants to withhold unanimous consent and shut all this down. Her reason? “Giving the Conservatives a spotlight in Question Period is not a reason to convene.” And again, “It only helps Scheer fling useless drama at a government finally working together (without him).”
Wrong on both counts Ms. May. Just as the Liberals currently hold responsibility for governing, Conservatives have an official, legal, and important responsibility to provide oversight and to hold the government accountable. It is their job. It is all the more important in times of crisis. It is also the democratic process, which does not allow for one without the other.
A virtual Parliament, in itself, is not sufficient. It does not adequately force the government to “face” Parliament. If democracies such as those in Japan, Italy, Germany, South Korea, Greece, Sweden, Finland, and the European Parliament can find ways to meet directly, why can this not happen in Canada, albeit with reduced numbers based on party representation?
With proper distancing and cleaning procedures in place, there is no reason why a quorum of Parliament cannot meet. It somehow defies logic that construction workers can continue to do their jobs on Parliament Hill, as they are, and yet members of the House of Commons cannot do theirs.
In a time of crisis, while it is important to find ways to work together, the last thing that should be done is to effectively shut down Parliament. It may make it easier for the party in power to govern, but it is also dangerous because democracies only survive when governments are held accountable.
I know that many of my Liberal friends believe that the Trudeau Government should have a free and unfettered hand to manage the various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But I wonder how they would feel if it were Andrew Scheer who was currently Prime Minister? Could it be that it is not so much an objection to critique, but rather about to whom it is directed?
Because a deadline of Monday to reconvene Parliament is looming, it will not surprise me if some kind of deal is reached by the time this commentary is posted. Mr. Scheer is proposing several in-Parliament sessions per week with representation similar to the previous emergency sessions. The Government is proposing one in-Parliament session with reduced representation and one virtual session per week. I come down somewhere in the middle, perhaps two in-Parliament sessions.
Whether or not Elizabeth May blocks any reasonable compromise remains to be seen. But whatever happens on Monday, it is important to remember that, in little more than a month, two attempts have been made to reduce the power and effectiveness and, indeed, the role of Parliament. We cannot allow that to happen.
Democracy must not be a victim of COVID-19.
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