Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant: The hybrid House of Commons should survive the pandemic

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      By Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant

      For nearly two years, the Canadian House of Commons has used a hybrid model, meaning parliamentarians can attend in person or via video teleconferencing for House sittings and voting.

      This arrangement was born of necessity during the pandemic when public health measures advised against travel and large in-person gatherings to control the spread of COVID-19.

      But the hybrid model should be here to stay. Virtual options to conduct critical House of Commons business can strengthen our parliamentary system by allowing a broader diversity of people the opportunity to engage in public office, including more women, racialized minorities, and persons with disabilities.

      Hybrid models for parliamentary business can promote diversity in representation by increasing flexibility for those many Canadians combining work and care responsibilities, such as those caring for young children, elders, or ailing family members.  Women and racialized minorities with strong intergenerational family settings may benefit most from such an arrangement.

      A hybrid House of Commons also diminishes burdensome travel, particularly for those representing Canada’s rural, remote, and northern regions.

      Hybrid House of Commons arrangements will expire on June 23, with the end of the current session of Parliament. The federal government should extend the hybrid model—and work with other political parties to make it a permanent option. 

      Extension of the arrangements would be consistent with the Liberal government’s efforts to enhance representativeness in Parliament, such as appointing gender parity cabinets, the first woman Finance Ministe,r and the first gender parity Senate.

      The good news is that the idea already has support in the House. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has publicly supported the idea of permanent hybrid arrangements in a bid to improve accessibility to politics. With the Liberal-NDP confidence-and-supply agreement, the government has the votes to make this happen.

      Canada is not alone in revisioning the deliberative process in politics. 

      Parallel debates are occurring in other countries, such as the U.K. and Australia, as well as in international organizations, such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women. As Canadian senator and IPU member Salma Ataullahjan put it, “the pandemic was an opportunity to rethink processes and priorities in parliaments. The chance to build more gender-inclusive legal reforms and gender-responsive institutions must be seized.”

      An IPU survey of parliaments worldwide found that 24 percent of parliaments plan to keep all and 52 percent plan to keep some remote arrangements post-pandemic.

      Should the hybrid House of Commons continue, several key matters will require attention to ensure it is truly diversity sensitive.

      First, the greater convenience of hybridity should not be used to increase productivity expectations in legislative work. Recently, the Liberal government introduced a motion that would allow extension of House sittings to midnight for the rest of the current session, from the present 6:30 pm adjournment time, on any sitting day.

      Night sittings have long been criticized as family unfriendly, and the danger is that such moves could become more common if MPs do not have to attend the House in person.

      Indeed, debates about the “return to work” after an extended period of work from home during the pandemic have raised generalized concerns about the blurring of work and home.  Employees’ abilities to “switch off” while working from home are worrisome, as is the rise of new forms of “presenteeism”, in which people work virtually while sick, on maternity or parental leave, or other types of leaves.

      Another concern about hybrid work arrangements is the visibility of virtual workers. In-person workers may be seen as more “present” or as harder workers while virtual workers are “out of sight, out of mind”. The Conservative Party’s critique of the hybrid House of Commons has been infused with these sentiments, accusing the Liberals of “hybrid hibernation”. or using virtual sittings to avoid scrutiny and accountability.

      Likewise, there could be harmful results if permanent hybridization is framed solely as a diversity issue or if MPs from underrepresented groups are the primary users of virtual sittings, opening them to accusations of slacking or simply rendering them less visible. Attitudes toward women MPs might be diminished among voters and among political gatekeepers who are essential to backbenchers’ career progression.

      Let’s take the innovations trialled during the pandemic as an opportunity to force positive permanent change. The hybrid House of Commons is worth preserving—but only if its postpandemic future is carefully designed and implemented.

      Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant is a professor of political studies and director of the Canadian Opinion Research Archive at Queen’s University.