GENUIS: The Liberal’s “virtual Parliament” scheme stifles parliamentary debate

Written By Garnett Genuis, Posted on April 14, 2020

The notion of moving to a “virtual Parliament”, where MP’s can make speeches remotely, is intuitively appealing in the days of COVID-19, and in general in a country so vast. But that intuition ‎is wrong. In reality, making Parliament virtual will destroy all of the remaining features which make it a meaningful and effective institution. Moving to a “virtual Parliament” would allow the government to advance its legislative agenda without real accountability or meaningful deliberation. No wonder the Liberal government is so keen on the idea.

There is a certain magic to Parliament which has evolved into its structure over the centuries. It exists to be a place where ideas are debated and challenged. When I give a speech, I can be challenged by subsequent speeches, by questions and comments that occur after most speeches, and even by heckles during it. My right to speak is given to me by my constituents and by the decision of the Speaker to recognize me if I can “catch his eye”. Historically MP’s were expected to speak extemporaneously. They also had to be substantially present for much of the debate if they wished to stand a chance of catching the Speaker’s eye. Some of these conventions have been (unfortunately) relaxed, but there is still a substantial interchange that is uniquely possible inside the Parliamentary chamber, in the cauldron of activity and noise that is generated.

Incidentally, there is a silly movement in some quarters to try to eliminate heckling and to apply “concert hall” norms of etiquette to this vital institution. But turning this chamber into merely another hall for the ‎polite exchange of speeches would not serve the public interest. The cut and thrust of Parliament is uniquely suited to its function – ensuring that everything that is said is challenged in every way possible. That might make the job of the person speaking a little more difficult, but the institution is adapted to serve the interests of the public, not the interests of those giving the speeches. The public is better served when speakers are constantly challenged, expected to listen and respond to what others are saying, and  encouraged to say what they believe instead of reading words that they have been given to them by someone else. The discomfort associated with constant confrontation is what makes Parliament what it is.

I am under no illusion that Parliament always lives up to these ideals. Far too many speakers in Parliament right now read speeches they have been given by party people and ignore speeches given by others members. But at least the environment still forces MP’s to engage and respond to what is going on to some extent. Those who read talking points instead of debating are able to be called out, and the institution has within it the capacity to force engagement even more.

What would a virtual Parliament be like? Instead of being crushed within this cauldron of ideas, MP’s would speak into their webcams, no doubt with the benefit of teleprompter technology built into their computers. The only background noise would come from their children or their coffee machine. Questions and comments afterwards would be more tightly scripted, procedures would inevitably be less fluid, and all the necessary drama would be lost. The freedom of speech that we are supposed to have within the chamber would be severely limited.

If members want to have the capacity to make videos for an online audience where they talk about issues, that’s fine, and we already have that. It’s called social media, not a “virtual Parliament”. What we do in the Parliamentary chamber cannot be replaced by yet another website where people post videos.

Proposals for a virtual Parliament are, in my view, simply one more Liberal attempt to neuter this ancient and noble institution. No website can replace the particular environment of the work we do. It may not always be comfortable for those speaking, but it is in the interests of our democracy that ideas are constantly challenged. 

Adaptations to Parliament are likely necessary in the midst of COVID-19, and there are options which should be studied that still allow us to meet in person and to do so safely. The Procedure and House Affairs Committee should study those options and propose a way forward that reflects the considered judgement of all parties. Options could include meeting with a more limited complement of members practicing social distancing or meeting in a larger hall to facilitate greater distance between members. MPs could be required to stay in Ottawa instead of travelling back and forth to their ridings. MPs could be asked to wear masks. And we could postpone debates on non-essential items. All of these are reasonable adaptations that would still preserve the integrity of Parliament as it exists. The Procedure and House Affairs Committee can chart a way forward in light of these and other options.

Finally, MPs should be very careful about so-called “innovations” which are adopted during this time and which could have lasting effects. History has shown us that conventions once established are hard to break. We need Parliament. We need it during this crisis, and we will need it long afterwards. Parliament should not be replaced by a website.  

Garnett Genuis

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