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Saying No to Zoom Parliament
Plus the Senate passes motion to grant Vladimir Kara-Murza honorary citizenship, speaking to the next generation of conservatives, and Ottawa reviews ties with the AIIB
Saying No to Zoom Parliament
Like many workplaces across Canada, the House of Commons and the Senate adopted a number of measures during the pandemic to accommodate parliamentarians working from home, including the ability to vote on bills and motions from anywhere in Canada and the introduction of a multi-modal, hybrid Parliament. While these measures were necessary at one point to ensure that the government remained operational at the height of public health restrictions, the pandemic is over and Parliament should be returned to doing the work to pre-pandemic practices to ensure that transparency and accountability mechanisms are preserved. However, the NDP-Liberal coalition recently voted to make the pandemic measures a permanent fixture of Canada’s Parliament. This is troubling for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, major changes to the rules of Parliament have always been made in a consent model. When this practice was not followed in decades past, it was always to the detriment of MPs and backbenchers. Conservatives have long held that major procedural reforms must be implemented with the consensus of all recognized parties. This method of changing may be slow, and Parliament has been slow to change, but this also preserved the ability of MPs to maintain control over their work, the spending by government, and ensuring ministerial accountability. The hybrid model was forced through on a majority vote of the PROC committee, the group of MPs tasked to look at procedural matters in Parliament, but that same committee failed to come up with what the new rules for hybrid or zoom Parliament should be. Instead, the Liberal government imposed their preferred rule changes with their majority of votes in their NDP-Liberal coalition. A compromise option proposed by Conservatives was voted down and can be found here. There are many shortcomings to continuing this hybrid-zoom model that was meant as a temporary set of rules during the pandemic.
Parliament is a bilingual place of work. We have two official languages and every MP and Senator is entitled to be understood in the language of their choice. This is true for committees as well as on the floor of each chamber of our Parliament. It is a unique feature of our system. No other Westminster-style Parliament that I am aware of that does live and simultaneous translation for legislators. This has caused numerous problems for those interpreters. Prior to hybrid sittings, there was one single instance of an interpreter sustaining a disabling injury in the five years prior to the pandemic. Since then, there have been 90 incident reports and likely many more issues that have not gone reported. There has not been a technology or software solution to the audio transmission problems with varying volumes from devices used by speakers continuing to cause workplace injuries. People are quitting because of it. In 2016-17, there were 140 freelance interpreters available to Parliament. Today, there are just 60.
The NDP-Liberal coalition has dismissed this problem and placed their hopes entirely in, well, hope. Not all people can handle this careful work of interpreting testimony presented to parliamentary committees to ensure all parliamentarians understand exactly what is being said. Parliamentary interpreters are highly specialized, skilled, and often require a high level of security access due to the confidential nature of some of the committees and meetings they serve. They have proposed no solution to stop the ever-shrinking pool of interpreters that are needed in Parliament. The lack of interpretation services has also allowed the Liberal House Leader, responsible for managing the government’s agenda on Parliament Hill, to cancel parliamentary committees on an ad-hoc basis whenever it suits them and blame it on a lack of resources. This, of course, allows a government to set up a situation where there will always be a lack of resources for parliamentary committees, a situation that is already affecting their accountability functions. I have had committee meetings cancelled due to this induced shortage and have seen numerous committees covering important files such as government operations, public accounts, and many others get cancelled in recent weeks. As the Liberal government has made use of more evening sittings to work until midnight, even more parliamentary committees are being cancelled. What this means is witnesses don’t present their experiences, government officials are not cross examined, and legislation does not get proper review. The government has not put forth any meaningful changes to address these problems. This should worry every citizen.
Apart from the technical issues of hybrid Parliament, there are also grave concerns regarding accountability and engagement. Matthew Hamlyn, C.B.E., a senior official of the United Kingdom House of Commons, stated that among MPs of the UK Parliament, “there is a consensus that, for instance, that scrutiny of ministers in the Chamber is more effective” in person. Despite retaining hybrid proceedings, the Scottish Parliament’s Clerk and Chief Executive conceded that “physical participation facilitates better collaboration and better scrutiny”. This has certainly been the case in Canada. The Liberal government has masterfully used hybrid Parliament to avoid answering questions, shut down committees, and dodge accountability. To address these concerns, Conservatives offered a compromise that would have seen senior officials required to testify in-person before committees and cabinet ministers answer questions in person during Question Period and in Committee of the Whole (where spending is scrutinized line by line and ministers and officials are questioned by a larger group of MPs). There is also a very important element of advocacy that takes place in person – a surprising number of constituents’ bureaucratic headaches can be solved with a quick word with a Minister while the bells ring for a vote, and important interpersonal relationships across party lines are established in person that otherwise would not form. A permanent change to hybrid sessions risks losing these important moments for genuine relationship building that in turn allows MPs to better represent and advocate for our residents.
Finally, it is important to note that these concerns should not be a partisan issue, but rather an issue that is addressed via meaningful engagement and input by Members from all parties. Indeed, former Liberal cabinet minister and longtime Member of Parliament Wayne Easter recently tweeted, “Let me put it this way: If you don’t want to work in Ottawa during the Parliamentary sessions – don’t run to be an MP. A hybrid Parliament made sense during Covid but it should never be permanent. I strongly oppose [the government’s] move to make it permanent”. There are no other national parliaments anywhere to have adopted permanent hybrid zoom parliament. No other legislature in Canada has adopted these rules. The changes being forced through by the NDP-Liberal coalition will eventually lead to parliamentarians not showing up to work and Parliament being on cruise control. After all, if your work can be done remotely and you are offered to be directed heavily by your leadership, then it is the easier option. That creates an imbalance between backbenchers and their leadership who will gain even more control over the work lives of their MPs. I have consistently spoken out against that, and these hybrid rules being forced on MPs are damaging to the institution of Parliament. Since the 1970s, every successive federal government has pushed for more centralization and much of it happened at the Cabinet level with the Prime Minister’s Office. This latest push will worsen our accountability and transparency deficit, and this is bad for citizens and for our democracy.
Senate passes motion to grant Vladimir Kara-Murza honorary citizenship
Last week, my motion to grant honorary citizenship to Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza passed unanimously in the House of Commons. Since then, I am pleased to share that this motion has now been passed by the Senate, meaning that Vladimir Kara-Murza will be the first recipient of an honorary Canadian citizenship since Malala Yousafzai in 2014. A politician, journalist, and advocate for freedom and democracy, Mr. Kara-Murza has survived at least two assassination attempts and is currently serving a 25-year sentence in a Russian prison for doing what all servants of the public are called to do – standing for truth, speaking out against injustice, and calling for peace. As stated by Senator Leo Housakos in his speech in the Senate, “human rights should be a core value and principle of what we are all about as a Canadian society. We should stand up for these values on a regular basis because that is what Canada is all about. It’s about freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights”. Vladimir Kara-Murza deserves our full support, and by promoting his name and story, we may be able to provide some protective cover for him inside the Russian prison system while also giving courage to political dissenters who continue to defy the regime of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin in the proudest traditions of great dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Borys Nemtsov.
Ottawa halts all government activity with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank
Six years ago, I warned that joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and gifting $200,000,000 to the Beijing communists to fund its authoritarian foreign policy was a mistake. The Liberal government didn’t listen. Now, the main spokesperson for the AIIB and the highest ranking Canadian in the organization has resigned, citing the bank’s domination by members of Beijing’s communist party and how Canadian interests are not served by AIIB membership.
The Liberal finance minister has announced that they have stopped work with the foreign bank and are launching a formal investigation, seven years after my initial warnings. Conservatives knew about this from day one, there is no reason that the Liberals should have taken seven years to understand this. It is past time for a serious government in Ottawa that can confront Beijing. The Liberal government is always too little too late when it comes to protecting our national interests and defending Canada’s national security.
Watch as I question the government on when taxpayers will get their money back.
Speaking to the next generation of conservatives
This week, I joined an MP panel to talk to this year’s conservative interns on Parliament Hill. The Conservative Party runs a paid internship program for these future leaders. Work experience on Parliament Hill is useful in any workplace and sets them up for a bright future contributing to businesses, charities and perhaps for some, public service as an elected official.