The House of Commons will reconvene today after a hiatus of nearly five months — a period punctuated by an election campaign that returned a seat map that looks very much like the one from the last session of Parliament.
The first order of business today is electing a Speaker to preside over the chamber’s proceedings. Government House Leader Mark Holland told CBC News that after that vote, the next priorities are reconstituting the hybrid model that allows MPs to dial in from outside Ottawa and enforcing a new vaccine mandate for parliamentarians.
The vaccine mandate is contentious already. After weeks of non-answers and threats of a challenge to the new vaccination rules, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole confirmed to Radio-Canada over the weekend that all Conservative MPs are now either vaccinated or have secured a medical exemption to the requirement.
O’Toole refused to say just how many of his caucus colleagues have been able to bypass the vaccine mandate by claiming an exemption. According to the Board of Internal Economy (BOIE), the committee of MPs that essentially governs the House, an MP can be exempted if they have proof of “a medical contraindication to full vaccination.”
“All of our MPs will be there,” O’Toole said in French. “For me, it is not appropriate to speak about the specific health issues of another MP.”
O’Toole, who is facing an organized challenge to his leadership in the form of a petition from a now former caucus colleague, said he convinced the holdouts to get a shot or produce papers to show why they can’t.
“I said we had to follow the rules and it’s important for leaders to set an example. And I am satisfied with the approach of our team after the election,” he said in an interview with Les coulisses du pouvoir.
Holland said the Conservatives are usually sticklers for Commons rules and he expects it to be no different with vaccination.
“I harken back to how many times I’ve seen Conservative members stand up and demand the Speaker not allow a member to speak because they’re not wearing a tie. They’re very adherent to the rules inside the chamber so I’m hoping they’re equally respectful of this,” he said.
“This is not a matter of conscience. It’s demonstrated by science that it’s not safe to have unvaccinated members in the parliamentary precinct.”
Holland is also insisting on a hybrid Parliament where some MPs are physically present in the Commons while others speak and vote remotely. When the House was dissolved before the September election, the last hybrid agreement ended. Holland wants the dual format to continue until at least June 2022.
“It’s absolutely imperative we continue with this and the flexibility it provides,” he said. “I don’t want to be coming back in March re-litigating all of this, wasting precious House time.”
He said it would be unconscionable for the Conservatives to endorse a plan that allows all MPs to fly in and congregate in a relatively confined space, sometimes for hours on end.
“It’s fine for a local restaurant. But imagine a restaurant where you have patrons coming from every corner of the country,” he said. “It’s a very different circumstance and it’s just logical that we follow the good advice of public health.”
O’Toole has balked at restoring the hybrid model, calling it a cynical attempt by the government to duck accountability and undermine the work of the opposition parties.
He has said the mixed in-person-hybrid approach has restrained committees and reduced the number of meetings as overworked translators have grappled with connectivity issues that make their work more difficult than usual.
With relaxed public health measures and fewer travel restrictions, it makes sense for MPs and senators to get back to work in person, O’Toole said. “It’s time for a real Parliament without hiding from Mr. Trudeau.”
Holland said he’s hoping this session of Parliament will be more collaborative than the last.
When asked if the Liberals would sign some sort of formal agreement with the NDP to keep the minority Parliament functioning for longer, Holland was non-committal.
“I think it’s fair to say we’re focused on cooperating and working together with all parties,” he said. “When I look at the platforms, there’s a lot of common ground and there are a lot of places where there can be unanimity.”
Finger-pointing over failed legislation
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prompted the September election, citing fractious relations in the Commons as a reason to head to the polls. He accused the opposition parties of derailing government bills to ban conversion therapy and overhaul the Broadcasting Act through a controversial piece of legislation known as Bill C-10.
The opposition parties said in response that the government controls the Commons and it alone is to blame for legislative mishaps.
Holland said the government will bring back those two bills — which died on the order paper when the election was called — and introduce new COVID-19 benefits like paid sick days to help workers cope with a lingering health crisis. There’s also legislation planned to ban the demonstrations at hospitals that have been a feature of anti-vaccination campaigns.
A ‘charged, zero-sum’ Commons climate
“There are still folks suffering,” Holland said. “I really hope we can avoid excessive partisanship. I want to see less obfuscation and less toxicity generally. I don’t think it serves the place. I really don’t think anybody was excited at the doors with any of those tactics and games.”
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science and director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. She said she’s not optimistic about prospects for a thaw in government-opposition relations and said the squabbling over vaccine mandates and a hybrid Parliament is a bad omen for what’s to come.
“I think relationships between the parties are going to be worse because there’s a sense that now they’re stuck together and jammed into a minority situation that nobody wants,” she said.
“They will all attempt to play their space, score points. It will be a really charged, zero-sum kind of environment that will create obstacles to any sort of cooperation between the parties.”