After a tumultuous 2020, did the House of Commons achieve a new normal this year?

·5 min read
MPs take part in a hybrid sitting of Parliament, which is currently set to continue until at least June 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
MPs take part in a hybrid sitting of Parliament, which is currently set to continue until at least June 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The House of Commons has wrapped another year of activity, its second during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chamber has been looking to find its feet after an at-times chaotic 2020, when it sat for a historically low number of days and was forced to innovate in the face of the pandemic.

To cope with the crisis in 2020, the House first suspended itself, then sat as a special COVID-19 committee, then finally settled on an evolving hybrid model, where some MPs are present physically and others participate online.

That format may be the new normal, even as the rise of the Omicron variant raises question marks about how politicians will go conduct business on the Hill. MPs voted in November to continue the hybrid model until at least June 2022, though just prior to the break the Liberals said they would further limit the number of MPs they had physically present in the House because of Omicron.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

"I think what happened is in 2021, parliamentarians came to the realization that this was a reality," said Speaker of the House Anthony Rota in an interview with CBC News.

But it's not the same. When almost all members of parliament were back in the House at the beginning of the first session of this new Parliament — with some controversy over the institution's vaccine mandate — Rota said it brought renewed energy to the chamber.

"It was nice to see everyone come back," he said. "And no, we're not sure what's going on with the the Omicron variant, but it was nice to see so many people back in the House, being able to interact with each other and talking — and even shouting at times."

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Rota has served as Speaker since 2019, and as MP for Nipissing—Timiskaming from 2004-2011 and again since 2015.

Overall, he said, the House has managed the pandemic situation in 2021 well.

"There have been some glitches, but people have handled them very well. And again, it hasn't been overly partisan. People have come together to make sure that democracy continues to do well in Canada," Rota said.

Technical glitches have been commonplace, especially early in the pandemic. More serious issues have also arisen, including stress and injury experienced by House of Commons interpreters, who provide the crucial service of simultaneous interpretation in French and English.

House sat for comparatively normal number of days

The House of Commons sat for 95 days in 2021, up from 86 days last year. That 2020 number was remarkable: the fewest days the House has sat since the Second World War, outside of an election year.

The tally this year may seem like only a marginal improvement, but it is actually higher than the average number of sitting days in election years in this century (just over 91), though still below the post-war average (106).

In contrast, non-election years since 2000 saw an average of 118 sitting days, and 141 in the post-war period.

There are plenty of caveats to go along with those numbers, of course, but they can give some sense still of how standard a year 2021 may have been. And comparing it to the 2020 sitting calendar, this year looks almost mundane.

House of Commons sitting days by year, 1945-

Of course, the quality of sitting days matters more than quantity. If the past several weeks have shown anything, it's that Parliament can act quickly and decisively in a short amount of time — if it wants to.

Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University, agreed that for the most part the hybrid model had worked "OK."

"As far as actually transacting business, I don't think this Parliament is in trouble," she said.

"But [the hybrid model] does make it harder for the opposition to be able to get anything across, because there's less public attention to it and there's less of a sense of buzz in the capital."

And overall, she said, "this government really minimizes Parliament."

When bills received royal assent in 2021

The Conservatives have consistently criticized the Liberals for pushing the hybrid model forward for much of this year, arguing that it helps the government avoid accountability.

"It's totally unacceptable for Mr. Trudeau to go to big meetings such as the [COP26 climate conference] in Glasgow but not be able to meet here on the Hill," O'Toole said in late November, when Parliament voted to reinstate the hybrid model.

"Parliament should not come back under any kind of hybrid formation," Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said in late September, when Ottawa was embroiled in a debate over the parliamentary vaccine mandate.

Rota said members could definitely be more effective when they were all in the House, but that many had still been able to get their message across, often in creative ways.

"As much as hybrid may seem to limit them, there's always a way of getting around it, and I have all the confidence in the world that they'll work around it," he said.

Keeping civility alive

Turnbull worried that the lack of physical interaction between MPs of different parties on the Hill would intensify partisanship, as the only exchanges they had would be in front of cameras.

"The only counter to that is when they actually interact with one another as humans … you have to sort remember the other person is a person," she said.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

"I think any sort of long-term move toward remote work will lose some of that collegiality and make it more transactional."

Turnbull noted it was a give-and-take: remote work also made it easier for some MPs, including those with young children, or those who had difficulty constantly travelling to and from Ottawa.

The rookie experience

Newer MPs are particularly strongly affected by the hybrid model, she said, as it might be harder to make an impression while attending committtees or caucus virtually, and personal relationships could be more difficult to form and maintain.

The experience for rookie MPs is also a concern for Rota, who had planned for more social interactions between MPs for the new year — events which are now overshadowed by spiking COVID-19 infections.

Still, Rota was optimistic that the House would find a way, as he argued it had throughout the pandemic.

"I think that's something that all Canadians can be very proud of. They can be very proud of their members of parliament for making democracy work in Canada."

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