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COVID-19 Canada: First 'virtual parliament' brings accountability with a few technical headaches

Without any heckling, the Speaker also never had to stop the proceedings to bring the Commons to order
April 29, 2020
Ryan Tumilty

Canada’s first “virtual parliament” brought MPs together Tuesday over Zoom with technological challenges from muted microphones, translation issues and slow internet.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu was the first to speak but, like a tree falling in the forest with no one around, there was no initial sound. The mute button had felled its first victim.

She was not the last to have a mute button misfire with several MPs from all parties making the same mistake, including the prime minister.

There were also issues with simultaneous translation that lead to several stoppages of the nearly two-hour question and answer session. But the session did allow MPs to question government ministers on a range of files, from personal protective equipment orders, to help for international students, to concerns about meat processing plants shutting down.

Without any heckling, the Speaker also never had to stop the proceedings to bring the Commons to order.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer dialed into the conference from his House of Commons office, complete with a Canadian flag and the Saskatchewan Roughriders merchandise key to the decor of any MP from the province.

Scheer used his first question to focus on testing kits, with several companies waiting for approval from Health Canada, he asked why the government wasn’t doing more.

“The latest information is that up to 50 companies are waiting for Health Canada approvals, so can the prime minister explain why Health Canada has, to this point, been unable to implement a fast track process?”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, appearing apparently from his Rideau Cottage office framed by a bookcase and a painting of the northern lights behind him, said Canada couldn’t afford test kits that did not work perfectly.

“We have seen around the world problems with test kits that have been faulty or unreliable,” he said. “Health Canada is prioritizing and rapidly going through a process of evaluating these tests, but we can’t compromise, not just the safety of individual Canadians, but the safety of our entire country.”

Many MPs dialed in from their homes where they, like most Canadians, have been for weeks now while public health authorities work to control the pandemic.

Industry Minister Navdeep Bains caught people’s attention with a striking painting of men in colourful turbans on his wall. He later explained on Twitter that it was the work of Benjamin Charles Ellis, an artist from Peterborough, Ont.

Alberta Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs was in her kitchen when she asked questions about help for the province’s oil industry -- with a fridge covered in family pictures at the edge of the shot.

In a moment parents across the country will sympathize with, Green MP Jenica Atwin warned the committee they might hear a crying child in the background as she asked her questions.

The virtual parliament did leave some people on the sidelines however.

Saskatchewan MP Cathay Wagantall said despite the hard work of House of Commons staff she was unable to connect to the meeting. She said everything worked on the trial run the House held on Monday, but Tuesday she couldn’t connect and had to watch the proceedings through the online webcast system.

“I am watching through ParlVu and not connected. It’s very disappointing.”

She said the virtual parliament worked OK, but there was still a lot missing and she believed in person sittings could have been possible.

“There is nothing quite like being in that room,” she said. “I think we have the capability to be there in reasonable numbers.”

Conservative MP Kyle Seeback said on Twitter he couldn’t connect to the meeting because of his internet connection speed and Conservative MP Alain Rayes said he was unable to connect to the meeting for ten minutes because his internet service failed, despite being in a government building in Ottawa.

Liberal Cabinet Minister Seamus O’Regan seemed to also be struggling with connection issues, because his video was low quality and audio strained when he answered questions.

The virtual sittings were approved last week during a special sitting of the House of Commons, as a means to provide government accountability to Parliament while limiting how often parliamentarians would have to attend the House of Commons in person.

The meetings are technically a new committee, but unlike other parliamentary committees all members of the House are members. Tuesday was the first virtual sitting, with an in person sitting scheduled for Wednesday.

No legislation can pass during the virtual sittings, but as set up they will give the same amount of time for questioning ministers that MPs normally get from Question Period over a full week.

The Conservatives opposed the virtual sittings, pushing instead for three in person sittings, but the other opposition parties sided with the government.

Last week, the House of Commons Clerk, Charles Robert, said he wasn’t sure all MPs would be able to participate. He said at the time the Zoom platform that the House was using would likely not be able to handle much more than 60 MPs.

But the House of Commons staff managed to overcome the technical problems, because 280 MPs were ultimately on the call Tuesday. There have been security and privacy concerns with Zoom, but the House is using a commercial version of the platform and there were no incidents of people forcing their way into the meeting.

At committee last week, Speaker Anthony Rota said he would impose the rules of decorum that House of Commons has for the virtual session and warned MPs to respect parliament’s dress code even if they were in their living rooms. They all did.

During Tuesday’s meeting he cautioned them not to take photos of their screens respecting the rules that prevent photos from being taken on the House of Commons’ floor and in committee rooms.

Rota ended the session by thanking technical staff and saying he hoped the system would only improve.

“We did have a few glitches, but nobody is perfect and we are working on perfection.”

Starting next week, there will be twice weekly virtual sessions, on Tuesday and Thursdays, to go with the in person sessions on Wednesdays.