MP Bob Zimmer is calling parliament a “sham” after regular sittings of the House of Commons were suspended until September.
On Tuesday, New Democrats joined forces with the governing Liberals to waive normal House of Commons proceedings for another four months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, they voted in favour of a government motion to continue with an expanded version of the special COVID-19 committee that has acted as a stand-in for the chamber over the past month.
The motion passed by a vote of 28-23 in a skeleton House of Commons, with Liberal, NDP and Green MPs supporting it.
The Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs — who had argued for a resumption of normal Commons operations with a reduced number of MPs in the chamber — voted against.
“It is clear that the Liberals want a free pass with zero accountability. We as a democratic country should have a functional Parliament,” Zimmer said in a statement Wednesday.
“Instead the Liberals, with the help of the NDP, not only suspended regular House of Commons sittings until the fall, but also shut down debate on this issue yesterday.”
Prior to the vote on Tuesday, Conservative and Bloc MPs contended that continuing normal operations in the Commons is necessary for the proper functioning of Canada's democracy.
They argued that the special committee structure does not allow MPs to use all the tools they would normally use in the Commons to hold the government to account, including opposition days, introducing motions, posing written questions and debating and voting on legislation on topics other than the novel coronavirus.
““Conservatives have long been calling for the full return of Parliament in a safe and responsible way and voted against this motion just like we did in April when the suspension of regular sittings was first extended," Zimmer said.
"I, like with many Canadians, believe strongly that we must have a return to normal Parliamentary business and do our jobs in the House while still respecting public health guidelines.”
The Commons has been largely adjourned since mid-March, when the country went into lockdown to curb the spread of the deadly virus that causes COVID-19. It has met only briefly to pass emergency aid legislation and several times to come to agreement on how the chamber should function while the pandemic continues.
The last agreement expired Monday, triggering a brief resumption of "normal" proceedings in the Commons, with only about 50 of the country's 338 MPs actually in the chamber.
Regular sittings are scheduled to resume Sept. 21.
In the meantime, the special committee resumed sitting Wednesday but in a new hybrid format, with a small number of MPs in the Commons and others participating virtually via two large screens set up on either side of the Speaker's chair.
The committee — which has been meeting twice a week virtually and once a week in person with reduced numbers in the Commons — will now meet four times each week for the next month and four times over the summer.
A previous restriction that prevented MPs from asking questions on issues other than the pandemic will also be lifted.
Zimmer said in his statement that the House has had just 31 sitting days so far this year.
He said has been trying to ask questions about the recently signed deal on rights and title signed between the federal government and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs through his work on the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs. The deal has been the subject of much criticism from within the Wet’suwet’en community.
“We have been shut down every time because it isn’t ‘COVID-related’, even though it is. This is shameful and just one example of how Parliament isn’t working as it’s supposed to,” Zimmer said.
“Parliament right now is a sham, and no Prime Minister, it’s not working.”
Until the issue of how MPs can vote electronically is resolved, Liberals and New Democrats maintained the special committee is the best way to continue since it allows all 338 MPs to be involved in the proceedings — not just those who are in the chamber.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier Tuesday that there are still limitations in allowing MPs to vote virtually that would effectively disenfranchise millions of Canadians whose representatives would have no official say on government policies.
"I think it would be important to ensure that Canadians across the country have an ability to make their voices and decisions heard in Parliament through that process.
That continues to be something we are working on," he said.
The motion calls on the procedure and House affairs committee to further study how a secure electronic voting system could be set up.
The committee has heard from experts that there may be constitutional and technical concerns over electronic voting, which may also violate traditional principles of parliamentary procedure.
— with files from The Canadian Press
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