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If an MP heckles in a virtual House of Commons, does it make a sound?


OTTAWA — Conservative MP Cathy McLeod tried gamely Wednesday to adhere to a long-standing parliamentary tradition, heckling her rivals across the aisle in the House of Commons for an answer that wasn't up to snuff.

But her target — Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal Crown-Indigenous Relations minister — wasn't there in person to catch it, instead engaging in the proceedings via the internet as the debut session of a COVID-19 era Commons got underway.

McLeod's heckle echoed around the airy ceilings of the West Block chamber, while Bennett's face simply disappeared off the screen, no chance for her to rebut or even potentially hear what had just happened.

In a hybrid House of Commons, many things just won't be the same as a regular day of Parliament.

Wednesday marked the beginning of the latest effort to ensure some measure of government accountability during the COVID-19 pandemic, while respecting physical distancing guidelines.

A COVID-19 committee, made up of all MPs, will meet four times a week until June 18, and MPs will have a choice to be there in person or log-in remotely.

On Wednesday, around four dozen were present in the chamber while at one point as many as 171 were signed-in from afar, according to Speaker Antony Rota's office.

"Ok, let's make history," he said before he formally kicked off the roughly two-hour session that marked the first time Canadian MPs have gathered in a such a fashion.

The idea behind the hybrid set up is to ensure MPs from all areas of the country are represented without them having to travel to Ottawa, exposing themselves, their families and others to possible COVID-19 infection, and keeping the number of people in the Commons chamber down for the same reason.

Not all of those logged-in were actually in their ridings. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was among the first cabinet ministers to field questions from outside the chamber. Though he represents a Vancouver riding, he was actually in his Ottawa office a few blocks away.

From their kitchens and offices and living rooms, many MPs appearing remotely wore headsets, looking and sounding more like managers on the sidelines of a football game than players on the field.

Bennett's appearance from the comfort of a well-appointed sitting room gave her responses the air of a fireside chat, as opposed to the fiery political debate that's a hallmark of the normal House of Commons. She'd been fielding questions on a deal with the Wet'suwet'en nation in B.C. that the government hopes will eventually allow for the construction of a pipeline.

That Bennett was discussing the subject at all reflected another element now part of the meetings: MPs can ask about subjects other than the pandemic.

Wednesday was dominated by COVID-19, with a focus on the crisis in long-term care homes, the overarching cost of the federal government's COVID-19 response and issues with various programs.

But MPs also pressed the government on environmental concerns, rules for pilots, Canada-China relations and a smattering of other subjects.

But it's still not the regular return of Parliament.

Parliament first adjourned back in mid-March just as the country was shutting down to slow the pandemic. 

It has sat to pass emergency aid legislation, and in exchange for supporting those bills opposition MPs won the right to return more regularly to their obligation of holding the government to account.

The special COVID-19 committee was struck, initially sitting three times a week, twice virtually and once in person.

Parliament had been set to resume normally on Monday. The Liberals instead sought to keep the COVID-19 committee going. They suggested the hybrid approach in a motion that passed Tuesday over the objections of the Bloc Quebecois and Conservatives, but with the support of the NDP, who had demanded Liberal action on sick pay in exchange.

The committee meets two hours a day, Monday through Thursday. MPs have up to five minutes each to question ministers, as opposed to the 30 seconds they get during a regular question period, but other powers have fallen by the wayside.

They can't put forward private members' bills, leaving little legislative chance of advancing causes that matter to people in their riding.

They can't ask written "order paper" questions, a system that allows for exceptionally detailed responses from government on a wide-range of subjects.

Initially, they'd also been restricted to only asking about COVID-19, but the last round of negotiations put an end to that limitation.

But even when it comes to COVID-19, many House of Commons committees aren't meeting.

The Tories have cited the defence committee as one. Given the role the Forces are playing in the COVID-19 response, there is now limited opportunity for parliamentary oversight of that work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been pressed repeatedly by as to why he didn't want the minority Parliament to return to normal.

He has cited the challenge of figuring out virtual voting on future legislation as a reason the COVID-19 committee is the stand-in for now.

Wednesday's meeting felt a bit more like a drive-in.

Two massive screens were suspended next to the Speaker's chair, MPs beaming themselves in from their homes and offices while those in the chamber watched. 

Trudeau, who entered masked, left after going a few rounds with party leaders, including the Bloc Quebecois' Yves-Francois Blanchet.

While Blanchet had wanted Parliament to return, he hadn't been as revved up about it as the Conservatives. His sartorial choice Wednesday spoke to the blended nature of the proceedings. Up top, a suit jacket and tie, as required. But below? Jeans.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, clad in his usual blue suit, was marking the third anniversary of his election as leader of the party as the historic meeting began.

Scheer had been adamant that Parliament must resume, thundering on earlier this week about the hallowed responsibilities of government.

After pressing Trudeau extensively, he briefly left the chamber. He returned, took his seat, and briefly engaged in some other business that's usual in the Commons: using the time to check Facebook.

The novelty of the new approach did wear off quickly, MPs pivoting from watching the screens in fascination to scrolling through phones or reading papers.

Debate wrapped up with a warm round of applause for the approximately 55 House of Commons staff assisting in the effort of spooling up the new system.

The MPs in Ottawa exchanged the political hot air they'd been blowing inside for a scorcher of a day in Ottawa, heading down the Hill carrying a provided bagged lunch to eat later.

The MPs back at home, one presumes, just went into their kitchens.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2020.  

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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