Committee says Commons should prepare for remote voting this fall

The parliamentary committee that oversees the way the House of Commons works says the chamber should spend the rest of the summer getting ready for MPs to participate and vote from outside of Ottawa.

The committee said in a report released Tuesday that COVID-19 likely will make it too dangerous for MPs to gather in large numbers when the Commons is due to resume its regular business in September — especially for those who need to travel long distances.

The committee wants to take the videoconferencing system MPs have been using for meetings over the last few months and add a secure voting system so that more normal business can be conducted — with some MPs physically present in Parliament and some not.

Since the House of Commons broke up as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada in March, it has used two primary meeting formats.

One is a special COVID-19 committee that meets in the Commons chamber. Any MP can participate in those committee meetings, and many have done so through videoconferencing. The COVID-19 committee can debate but it can’t pass legislation.

The other format is occasional sittings of the House of Commons with very limited numbers of MPs present. In those sittings — two of which are taking place this week — MPs can pass legislation but only those in the chamber can participate.

The committee’s recommendation is essentially to fuse the two formats so that MPs can participate virtually and hold meaningful votes.

Creating that voting mechanism will mean “an iterative approach including multiple rounds of testing, demonstrations and adaptations,” so that by the time September sittings come around, MPs are comfortable with the technology and everyone is confident it’s safe to use.

High-quality audio gear needed

The committee also says all MPs and anyone else participating must be equipped with high-quality audio gear so they can be heard properly.

And the Commons will need to invest in its interpretation service because the people who do that work have been burning out trying to translate fast-talking MPs with poor internet connections.

A screen shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he rises during a meeting of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Those poor internet connections are most likely to plague MPs representing more remote rural areas. The committee says the House of Commons should do what’s necessary to fix them.

The Conservatives dissented from the committee’s recommendations, saying it’s better for a limited number of MPs to gather in Ottawa in person and avoid travelling while COVID-19 remains a worry.

“Of course, we recognize the COVID-19 pandemic requires us to change our routines,” their dissenting report reads. “However, the underlying currents, during this study, heading toward a remote voting app made us question, again, if ‘a crisis was not being left to go to waste.”‘

The Conservatives say the House of Commons would work better with a maximum of 86 MPs in the chamber at any one time — the largest number that can fit in the chamber while maintaining physical distancing.

If their fellow MPs do adopt the committee’s recommendations, the Tories say they should expire automatically at the end of December unless there’s a vote to renew them.

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