Fashioning a Pandemic Parliament: Getting On with Getting On.

AuthorChaplin, Steven

Following the initial flurry of activity and uncertainty, as institutions responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world has settled into a new normal in which the disease--and actions to prevent its spread such as travel restrictions and physical/social distancing--will remain part of life for the foreseeable future. Building on a previous article that examined the early actions of Canada's federal parliament as the world confronted outbreaks of this novel coronavirus, the author now explores how to identify best practices that ensure the health and safety of parliamentarians and parliamentary staff while respecting parliamentary privilege and constitutional requirements. The author suggests that hybrid sittings (a mix of in-person and virtual participation) combined with a greater role for committee work could become a workable medium-term solution for parliaments during a pandemic. He cautions, however, that it must be parliament and not the government that decides how to fulfill the functions that underpin the Westminster system, maintain notions of parliamentary confidence in government and ensure adequate opportunity for opposition review to ensure accountability. Moreover, he notes that any additional authority granted by parliament to the government or selfrestrictions imposed in light of pandemic conditions must be temporary and limited to the duration of the pandemic.

At the time of writing, it has been six months since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in North America. Since then, COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic, the number of cases has waxed and waned, and there appears to be no natural end to it. Until a treatment and vaccine are developed and deployed, this disease will remain a part of life for the foreseeable and indeterminate future. As a result, institutions, including Parliament, must develop a modified modus operandi to carry out their constitutional functions based on a "new normal" over the medium to long term.

At the onset of the pandemic, the severity and transmission of the disease were unknown. Fearing the worst, it was prudent for governments to act swiftly and decisively. To do so, they needed to obtain funding, and exercise emergency powers and spending authority. Because the disease was communicable, restrictions were placed on travel, and "social distancing" was immediately put in place. Parliaments and legislatures were not able to meet in the usual fashion. They were adjourned and temporarily recalled only to address the COVID-19 emergency. As a result, parliaments came to play a secondary role, with most of their functions limited to what was required to support the government's initial and urgent responses. Given the exigencies of a Westminster system of government, Parliament was still required to pass the necessary legislation to grant the powers and spending authorities needed to address the emergency. The social distancing requirements and the restrictions on travel were met, in various Commonwealth countries, by differing emergency parliamentary processes that ranged from suspending parliamentary proceedings, hybrid parliamentary sittings, smaller representative sittings, specialized COVID-19 committees sitting as a smaller committee or as committee of the whole, and ad hoc plenary sittings (1). In addition, various voting systems were used, including in-person with social distancing, remote electronic voting, proxy voting, voting by party blocks, and hybrid combinations of these. Most significantly, parliamentary business was generally restricted. Parliamentary agendas and processes were stripped back to focus on the pandemic, leaving other government business and opposition initiatives sidelined or severely curtailed.

In the beginning, it was not known how to meet the needs imposed by social distancing. Was it even technologically possible to have an electronic meeting of upwards of 650 people? Could chambers be reconfigured to meet the needs? Could votes be held remotely and securely? Could any of these technologies and solutions be considered and still meet all constitutional requirements including quorum and ensuring that parliamentary privilege was protected?

Although the pandemic continues, the urgency that led to emergency legislation and stripped-down proceedings to address the immediate response has abated somewhat. It is now evident that the pandemic will last for some time and that more "permanent" solutions that meet the ongoing needs of both the government and Parliament must be found. In a briefing paper to the UK Procedure Committee (House of Commons), the Hansard Society noted that in the urgent stage of the pandemic and in the slow return to "normal" the focus has been on the business of government. The needs and the importance of the opposition were being ignored or curtailed. Any consideration of a return to a Parliament that is able to hold the government to account must ensure that not only government, but opposition business is promoted (2).

In Canada, at the federal level, full sittings were suspended and replaced by the COVID-19 Committee (essentially a committee of the...

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