Canada parliament goes virtual during pandemic

by Michel Comte

Canada’s parliament has gone virtual through the pandemic, assembling MPs across six time zones and giving a rare peek at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s bookcase, a deer head and a stifled opposition.

Every Tuesday and Thursday over the past month 338 Canadian MPs logged into Zoom from home to question ministers in lieu of holding a daily in-person question period.

The first sessions were marred by glitches — “Can you hear me now?” “There’s an issue with the translation.” “The minister is being cut off.” “Please unclick your mute.” “You might also hear my son, he doesn’t sound too happy, in the background.”

“This is a historic day,” Speaker Anthony Rota said when it began, while admonishing MPs over sounds of camera clicks “not to post photos on the Internet of the screen,” as per parliamentary rules.

A few others including the British and Latvian parliaments have also gone online to limit person-to-person spreading of the COVID-19 virus.

“We cannot be vectors for the virus,” New Democrat MP Peter Julien told AFP, explaining why his party pushed for this arrangement to maintain democracy in a crisis.

“The only way to ask questions on behalf of constituents and hold government accountable without endangering the public is a virtual parliament,” he said.

Critics such as Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher lamented that it has diminished the role of the official opposition, while the minority Liberal government of Trudeau uses daily press briefings to discuss policy.

“It’s very difficult in these mass virtual sessions to put a minister or the prime minister on the spot,” Conacher said, describing the sessions as “chaotic.”

He also warned of the risk of abuse if parliamentary oversight is curtailed. (AFP)