OTTAWA — Green Party Parliamentary Leader Elizabeth May is lashing out at Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, saying he should be more focused on safeguarding the public’s health and economic well-being than on holding in-person sittings of Parliament.
“Andrew Scheer should be thinking over whether his actions look like he’s putting the public interest of all of Canadians first or his efforts to be part of this crisis,” May told HuffPost Canada from her home in Saanich–Gulf Islands Tuesday. “I don’t think Canadians will appreciate people [and] parties that try to seek partisan advantage right now.”
May was responding to Scheer’s demand that the Liberal government, in return for the Tories’ support on postponing Monday’s scheduled return of all 338 MPs to Parliament, must agree to hold frequent in-person sittings of question period in the House of Commons.
In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent earlier this week, Scheer laid out his demand, saying that an agreement “must include regular opportunities for myself and other Opposition leaders to question you, as we would normally during Question Period. It must also include regular opportunities for all members of Parliament to question ministers in the House of Commons on all aspects of the government’s response to COVID-19.”
To delay the return of Parliament, House leaders from all the recognized parties — those with 12 seats or more, the Liberals, Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and the NDP — must agree and inform the Speaker. May, whose Green Party holds only three seats, has no leverage in the negotiations.
Scheer publicly argued Tuesday that sittings are important, that they are “an essential part of our democratic process,” and that they allow “opposition parties to debate, discuss, question, and ultimately improve the government’s response to this pandemic.”
He pointed to two emergency sittings of the House, the last one on Saturday, when 32 MPs and the Speaker assembled to pass a wage-subsidy legislation, as a demonstration that MPs “can meet in a responsible manner while respecting public health advice.”
Wednesday morning, during a press conference in Ottawa, Scheer reiterated that message, saying surely in a House built for 338 MPs, 40 members could operate while respecting social distancing guidelines.
“Let me be clear, this is not about partisanship. This is about getting the best possible results for Canadians,” he said.
But May disagrees. Even with a tenth of MPs in the chamber, she said the opposition lobby was so crowded Saturday, the 65-year-old avoided it because social distancing measures could not be respected.
Watch: Scheer speaks about deadline for Parliament’s return
“I don’t understand where Andrew Scheer is coming from. I can’t understand why he wants to push physical meetings when we shouldn’t be having physical meetings,” she said. “Every time we convene Parliament, it imposes a risk on a lot of people, no matter how much we say we’re going to do social distancing.”
Even with a smaller crew of MPs Saturday, approximately 40 staff were called to the West Block — extra security staff, cleaners, transcribers, interpreters, clerks, and broadcast technicians, plus, of course, political staff.
During a pandemic, parliamentarians don’t need to meet in person to get the job done, May argued.
“If we had a situation where the Liberals had essentially seized power, were unaccountable, didn’t answer our questions, and we had no venue for speaking about things that worried us, I would say we better get Parliament back in session because the Liberals are running roughshod over democracy. But that’s not what’s happening. We’re actually being consulted … MPs are engaged,” she said.
“In terms of transparency, co-operation, sharing of information, working the way Parliament really should work, it’s working better with it closed, quite honestly,” she added, laughing.
Except for Easter, May noted, MPs and senators have been briefed every day and allowed to question government officials on the Liberals’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. A hole in the legislation that prevented churches in her riding, for example, from using the wage subsidy was fixed because of concerns she said she raised during one of those calls.
“There is an openness to good ideas,” she said. “The fact that it is all hands on deck, it’s working in a very different way, but it is working.”
“There’ll be time enough after,” she added,” to study “who knew what when,” and what the federal government has learned from the pandemic.
May also noted that Anthony Rota, the Speaker of the House of Commons, is looking at ways to set up virtual sittings of Parliament. In an April 8 letter, Rota said he thought that could be established in about four weeks.
The Commons’ procedure and house affairs committee is also meeting Thursday to discuss ways MPs can do their jobs — such as voting — from a distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The virtual sittings are not intended to be a permanent fixture or a way of allowing 338 members to participate at once, one official told HuffPost.
And getting an agreement between the opposition parties may prove difficult.
Bloc Québécois spokesperson Joanie Riopel told HuffPost that party leader Yves-François Blanchet believes it is “completely irresponsible to recall 338 MPs” to Ottawa. The party is open to discussing “occasional” meetings but believes virtual meetings should be “encouraged” — an idea the Bloc has promoted several weeks, she said.
Saturday, Blanchet told reporters a virtual Parliament would allow political parties to show Canadians their proposals for handling the crisis, something, he said, MPs are now struggling to do on social media because the country’s airwaves and newspapers are saturated with other important news stories.
“That would allow parties to avoid a situation where there is just one arbiter for everything and that’s the government,” Blanchet said. “I think there is a need for accountability.”
Still, Blanchet said the Bloc wants to avoid — except for votes or exceptional essential measures — bringing people to Ottawa while the virus circulates.
“I think we have the duty to avoid that. And to expose people and contribute to the spreading of this disease for partisan reasons, that would be so completely irresponsible I would not want to be associated with that in any fashion,” Blanchet said.
NDP more in line with Tories
NDP House leader Peter Julian told HuffPost his party is more in line with the Tories. The NDP supports the idea of having an in-person question period with party leaders once a week, the B.C. MP said, and daily virtual question periods the rest of the week so MPs back in their ridings can ask ministers questions.
“Everyone understands that given that parliamentarians are vectors for spreading the virus… any gathering of MPs even with the reduced Parliament has to be done prudently,” Julian said by phone. But “the competition between parties and ideas makes for better government,” he said, and “in-person accountability checks are not a bad idea.”
“We need to have a balance,” he said. “Meeting every day in Ottawa is dangerous and can’t protect the health and safety of the public or the people who work on the Hill, but having a reduced format once in a while or once a week with a reduced number of MPs could work in Ottawa.”
The Liberals have pushed to have a virtual Parliament to minimize public health risks while ensuring debate and accountability. Mark Kennedy, a communications advisor in Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez’s office, stressed Tuesday that six committees will soon be meeting virtually and the auditor general will be looking at the management of spending during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We believe in the importance of parliamentary accountability,” Kennedy told HuffPost, noting that a virtual House could be possible by three weeks from now.
“We will continue to work collaboratively with other parties on this issue as we hold discussions this week, because that’s what Canadians are expecting all of us to do,” he said.
An agreement is expected by week’s end.