COVID-19 and Democratic Accountability: Time for a Virtual Parliament

, , Comments Off on COVID-19 and Democratic Accountability: Time for a Virtual Parliament

If the current pandemic can be said to have any positive result, it is surely that everyone now realizes the important role government plays in the daily lives of citizens. With the possible exception of 9/11, there has not been such a widespread call for increased government intervention since World War II.

Governments have responded. In Canada, as in other western liberal democracies, that response has necessarily included some degree of infringement on civil liberties and a massive expenditure of public funds. Normally, both types of measures would undergo close scrutiny in duly-elected legislatures, where members of the opposition would be able to hold the government accountable. But these are hardly normal times, as everyone but Conservative leader Andrew Scheer appears to recognize.

Earlier, he and other opposition leaders rightly required the government to back down on its plans to essentially allow it carte blanche spending authority until the end of 2021. Instead, the deadline has been moved back to 6 months, and there is a guarantee that regular accounting of expenditures will take place through committee hearings and other means during this period. Well and good. Daily press briefings by the prime minister cannot substitute for scrutiny by elected members of parliament. Clearly no one wants democracy to be a victim of this virus, as is already happening in various formerly democratic regimes such as Hungary.

However, this past week, Scheer’s party delayed approval of the government’s $73 billion bailout package for individuals and businesses, saying his consent to the relevant legislation was contingent on the government agreeing to hold in-person meetings of parliament, perhaps as often as four days a week. After four days of wrangling the Conservatives finally agreed to ‘facilitate’ the passage of the bill in a special one-day sitting of parliament, comprised of a select group of only 32 MPs, on the Saturday of the Easter weekend. But Scheer also insisted that such a small proportion of MPs continue to meet in Ottawa on a regular basis, in order to question the prime minister and cabinet ministers in person about their actions and the progress being made in combatting the COVID-19 virus. These select MPs, he suggested, could drive to Ottawa from nearby constituencies in Ontario and Quebec, thereby avoiding the need for MPs from other parts of the country to make lengthy journeys on public transport. [1]

There are at least three major problems with Mr. Scheer’s plan. First, as House Leader Pablo Rodriguez stated, the optics of politicians telling Canadians to stay home, while they themselves travel regularly to Ottawa, is unacceptable. Second, as the prime minister has pointed out, holding actual sittings of the House of Commons would necessitate the presence of countless support staff — from cleaners and pages to interpreters and Hansard reporters, unnecessarily endangering many more people than simply the MPs involved, to say nothing of the cabinet ministers orchestrating the response. (In Britain, failure to shut down meetings and take physical distancing seriously has resulted in not only the prime minister but several of his ministers testing positive for the virus and being taken out of the action at a crucial point in that government’s response.) Third, it is striking that Mr. Scheer, a western MP, should have overlooked the crucial fact that his plan would exclude any representation from the west or the Atlantic, regardless of party affiliation. Similarly, such a small sample would make it impossible to represent the diversity of members in the House.   

Mr. Scheer also argued that actual sittings were necessary to allow the opposition to make their views known to the government, seeming to suggest that it was not updating or consulting them. This argument was repudiated by all of the other party leaders in their opening remarks at the Saturday session. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Bloc leader Yves-Francois Blanchet took advantage of the occasion to specifically thank the prime minister and his government for their non-partisan approach, regular information briefings and willingness to take other views and suggestions into account. Green Party leader Elizabeth May went further, itemizing all of the ways in which the government’s conduct had been exemplary in this regard.[2] Mr. Blanchet also expressly stated that he had no intention of agreeing to additional in-person sittings four times per week.

The solution is obvious. Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez has already asked Speaker Anthony Rota and his officials to examine ways and means to set up a virtual parliament, in which all MPs could participate. Several parliamentary committees have already held such meetings which have been judged a success. Both Britain and Australia are hoping to move to similar virtual sessions by the end of the month. The EU, meanwhile, has already held virtual sessions of the Council and Commission, and has established an online voting system for its parliament. In Canada, all other opposition party leaders have indicated they are ready to participate in a virtual parliament and experts have said it can be done.[3] No one wants this to become a permanent feature of Canadian democracy, but in the current situation it is clearly the most reasonable and balanced approach to democratic accountability as well as the safest. Mr. Scheer should get on board.     

[1] For detailed accounts, see J. Bryden. “House of Commons Back Saturday”. Toronto Star. April 9, 2020 and CP. ‘Government, Opposition Parties Reach Deal”. CityNews. April 11, 2020.

[2] A replay of the speeches can be found on CPAC at

[3] B. Paez. “Challenges to Virtual Sittings Not Insurmountable, Say MPs, Experts”. Hill Times. April 9, 2020.