Making a Bad Thing Worse: Parenting MPs and the Pandemic.

AuthorBittner, Amanda

Canadian MPs have only very recently had access to paid maternity and parental leave. Yet there is an absence in related rules and arrangements that would allow them to continue representing constituents while being granted leave from the House of Commons. In this article, the authors contrast parenting leave in the Canadian House of Commons with the arrangements now permitted in the United Kingdom's House of Commons. In light of the experiments with virtual proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors suggest a future where a hybrid parliament that combines in-person and virtual participation or one that permits features like proxy voting would be desirable for not only MPs on parenting leave, but also for any MP who could not be present during a sitting for medical necessity, bereavement, inclement weather, geographic distance, or many other reasons.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a number of issues, concerns, and constraints for parents. Unprecedented numbers have lost their jobs entirely; those still employed struggle to balance work with childcare and other caring responsibilities. With COVID shutdowns, essential workers can be left without anyone to care for their children. For parents whose work duties are now entirely completed from home, the reality is that they can work, or they can parent, but they rarely can do both.

All of this is exacerbated for women. Even though men do more in the home now than in the past, women still do the lion's share of unpaid household labour. This is especially acute when it comes to childcare. Add to this the fact that over four in five lone parents are women, and that women have suffered the brunt of the COVID job losses, and it's fair to say the harshest economic consequences are falling on mothers.

This tension between work and care is not new scholarship on the welfare state argues we simply cannot understand the economy or social programs without understanding the dynamics of this unpaid care women disproportionately provide. (1) The pandemic has simply highlighted that how we think about gender, work, and care responsibilities remain very outdated.

The tension in the work-care balance is especially clear for Canadian Members of Parliament (MPs). Existing maternity and parental leave provisions for our representatives are both new and inadequate. Where other Westminster parliaments, especially Britain, have meaningfully discussed and addressed how to best to allow parenting MPs to balance commitments with parliamentary work, Canada has not. We argue in this paper that the sequence of events in Canada is key to the future of policies on this issue: by failing to introduce adequate measures to accommodate parenting MPs' absence from the House when they introduced parental leave policies, those mechanisms are now tainted in Canada by partisan bickering about how to address COVID-19. This renders their introduction and use for parenting leave more difficult than it would have been, had more serious and appropriate consideration of how best to address parenting leave and parliamentary work for MPs been done in the first place.

Workplace equity, parental leave, and the Canadian House of Commons

For most workplaces outside politics, governments around the world have regulated maternity and parental leaves, taken childcare and early childhood education seriously, and enacted laws that support children and families, allowing for substantial increases in the proportion of women present in the workforce. Yet, as a workplace, legislatures in general, and the Canadian House of Commons in particular, lag woefully behind.

Canadian Members of Parliament (MPs) have only had access to parental leave for about a year. In June 2019, the Canadian House of Commons unanimously adopted a policy that would allow Members of Parliament (MPs) to take paid maternity and parental leave. (2) Prior to this, MPs absent for more than 21 days for anything other than illness or official business would be docked $120 a day. The new policy is a necessary first step.

However, unlike in other jurisdictions, no other formal rules or arrangements changed alongside this parental leave. For Canada's MPs, taking maternity and parental leave simply removes them from the House. Tasks and duties associated with constituency representation are clearly intended to continue as normal during an MP's parenting leave. (3)

In practice, this means a process called pairing is used, not only for any MP on parenting leave but also for any MP who cannot be in the House for a protracted period of time. Pairing matches the MP on leave with an MP on the other side of the House of Commons to ensure that partisan balances remain intact across the government and opposition parties, for any votes taking place in the legislature. (4)

There are at least two problems with this situation. First, pairing renders the voice of the MP on parenting leave completely silent in the House. This ensures parenting leave is unappealing for MPs committed to parliamentary work and doubles as an effective attack against an MP who may wish to spend dedicated time with a new child. Research highlights how taking voices out of the legislative debate is problematic, especially when those voices are from underrepresented or marginalized groups. Their experiences are relevant to policy, and their ability to participate in legislative debate and process helps ensure information derived from those experiences is integrated, at least in part, into the process. (5) Most Canadian MPs are men, and then-average age is consistently above 50. (6) Parenting leave, as it currently exists for Canadian MPs, ensures that new parents, especially mothers, and the policy-relevant information they would bring to parliamentary debate, are absent.

Second, the logic behind pairing suggests MPs' work is best rmderstood as a partisan activity that can only occur when they are physically present in the House. Opposition...

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