Conservative leader Erin O’Toole came out today and turned against liberal attempts to restore a virtual parliament, calling for a return to the hybrid model that allows lawmakers to get involved in matters outside of Ottawa, a cynical attempt by liberals to evade accountability and undermine the work of the opposition.
O’Toole said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is using the COVID-19 crisis as cover to hit a proposal that would allow fewer MPs to be physically present in the Commons every day.
With most of the adult population fully vaccinated, O’Toole wants all 338 MPs at hand to speak and vote in person. The Liberals maintain that it would be safer to allow some members to participate externally while the virus is still circulating.
Liberal House leader Mark Holland has said he has heard from MPs with compromised immune systems who are uncomfortable with the idea of being in the chamber with conservative MPs refusing to be vaccinated.
An unknown number of Conservative MPs have avoided getting a shot at demanding medical exemptions from the Commons rules.
SE: O’Toole says hybrid parliament vote is about holding government ‘accountable to Canadians’
Under a hybrid model, lawmakers who are skeptical of large assemblies like this can call in from their constituencies, Holland said, and lawmakers capturing COVID-19 can participate from isolation.
At least one Conservative MP, Richard Lehoux, has been given COVID-19 in the past week, Holland said, adding that an end to the hybrid model would deprive Lehoux and any other MP who is to be quarantined.
O’Toole said he does not buy the liberal explanations.
“It is completely unacceptable for Mr Trudeau to go to big meetings like the one in Glasgow, but not be able to meet here on the hill,” O’Toole said, referring to the COP26 climate summit in Scotland.
“This is just another example of a government out of touch with the needs of Canadians and totally focused on their own petty interests.”
O’Toole said Trudeau is keen to return to “hybrid hibernation” and wants to hide from the responsibility that can only come from facing opposition lawmakers in the hall. The prime minister was comfortable being in a room with “thousands of people” at COP26, he said, “but he can not be around a few dozen people here.”
“Why is the Prime Minister such a hypocrite? What are the Liberals afraid of? The answer is obvious. Justin Trudeau has an aversion to accountability,” O’Toole said.
The Netherlands later retaliated against O’Toole, saying parliament is “very different” from the COP26 summit or a campaign stop because participants in these events could choose whether to participate based on their own level of comfort with the crowds.
“If we do not have any hybrid measures, there is an obligation for members to participate regardless of their health conditions, regardless of whether they are immunocompromised,” he said. “It is absolutely unacceptable, in a pandemic, to force them into situations where their health is at risk.
“We have people flying in from all corners of the country, spending a week together, mingling together in a very, very small place and then returning to all parts of the country.”
Despite O’Toole’s protests, the hybrid model is expected to return after a vote later tonight because NDP MPs have agreed to support the Liberal proposal, which will allow for virtual participation until June 2022.
Speaking in the Commons during the debate on the hybrid movement, Conservative MP Michael Barrett said Liberal cabinet ministers routinely bypassed responsibility under the last parliament by claiming “technical difficulties” when faced with a difficult issue.
He said that even when some cabinet ministers were physically in Ottawa, they joined parliamentary procedures from their offices so they could read talking points from their computer screens.
Liberals avoid parliament ‘like the plague’ – Conservative MP
“What we saw was shameful – ministers would not even walk across the street or come downstairs to sit in an empty house to be accountable to the Canadians,” Barrett said. “What we have seen in this place are ministers, the Prime Minister, parliamentary secretaries and backers on the government side who are absolutely avoiding this place as if it were the plague.”
He said Liberal MPs “want to be paid to sit in their basements at home.”
Barrett said Liberal ministers and MPs are also eager to avoid the busy weight of personal media scrums in Parliament halls by returning to more stage-controlled virtual press conferences moderated by bureaucrats and political figures.
In response to conservative proposals that Trudeau and other ministers will be absent from the Commons frequently, the Netherlands said Thursday that they “will definitely attend the hall physically.”
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, the party’s natural resources critic, said she could have been sympathetic to liberal arguments in favor of a virtual parliament if Trudeau had not sparked an election campaign during a fourth wave of the pandemic.
Rempel Garner pointed to Trudeau campaign events involving hundreds of participants, saying the Liberals only raise COVID-19 concerns when it is practical for them politically.
Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen defended the hybrid model against this conservative criticism.
“This is about flexibility for members. It is very common for workplaces to establish practices to ensure that people can still participate and carry out their work,” he said. “If I happen to catch COVID, why would not you then expand the possibility for me to do it virtually? That’s all this exercise is about.
“Whatever we have brought forward, there has always been opposition from the Conservatives to anything that protects the security of Canadians. It is utterly shameful that they do not think it is important to extend these provisions.”