Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you all very much.
Madam Chair and committee members, thank you for your invitation to reappear today as you continue your study of parliamentary duties and the COVID-19 pandemic.
As I explained in my previous statement to the committee, your challenge is to consider and recommend how the House and its members can perform their roles of advancing legislation and holding the government to account while observing the necessary health precautions during the current pandemic.
I have been following your committee's proceedings with interest over the past two weeks as you have heard presentations and posed questions to witnesses who have provided important evidence.
Today I would like to offer some suggestions on how the House of Commons could adjust these practices in light of the two operating functions: one, as a deliberative assembly engaged in debate; and two, as a decision-making assembly on legislation, resolutions and orders.
Through the first meeting of the special committee on COVID-19 on April 28, most members have now participated in virtual deliberations. A virtual meeting is undeniably different from our usual in-person proceedings, but as we continue to adjust to using new technologies, we have seen it is possible to gather, debate and deliberate in virtual meetings.
As chair of the committee I was impressed by this experience, both from the technological standpoint and the quality of the exchange. I took some notes that I want to share with the committee. They may provide some ideas for your consideration as you prepare your report.
One issue that I think must be addressed has to be with the visual background in front of which members appear. Based on established practice, these backgrounds should be as neutral as possible, and consistent with the non-partisan environment of the chamber or committee. I have written to the chair of this committee expressing my concerns on this topic.
Absent a decision of the House to the contrary, I will be advising members to refrain from including any background that is not consistent with the norms and standards followed within the parliamentary precinct.
I also noted that many of the House's practices surrounding its deliberations can readily accommodate virtual participation. For example, the Chair is aided in recognizing members in debates by the rotation lists established by all the parties. This already brings a degree of predictability to the proceedings, something that is equally helpful to members and the Chair participating through a virtual setting.
Other proceedings, such as question period, where fixed interventions are relatively brief, might need some adjustment. In a virtual sitting, time must be managed differently, and the exchanges between members asking and answering questions will not be the same as in an in-person sitting. These aspects of question period—the length of interventions and the unpredictability surrounding who will respond—are, however, matters of adjustment among the parties or matters of practice, and could be adjusted to provide more time for questions and answers without requiring formal changes to the House's rules.
Many of the House's more routine practices could also be adapted to accommodate virtual participation in a straightforward manner and without changes to the rules. For example, the provisions that allow members to present petitions in the special committee on COVID-19 specifically ensure that such petitions are deemed presented in the House. In a virtual sitting of the House, no change to the rules would be necessary for members who are participating virtually to present petitions. Members would simply continue to submit the petition certificates electronically.
In short, as this committee decides what types of business it would like to see in the House debates and how—whether virtual or some hybrid of in-person and virtual—the procedural experts in the House administration will provide the committee with a more detailed proposal on how to accomplish this. In fact, the House administration has already begun work on how to support such an outcome, following the guiding principles I shared with the committee during my previous appearance.
On April 5, I received a letter from the government House leader asking about the ability of the administration to support and facilitate virtual sittings of the House during these unprecedented times. In my response on April 8, I stated that I had mandated digital services and real property, in collaboration with procedural services, to prepare for the possibility of holding virtual sittings within four weeks.
Similar to the approach to virtual participation of a number of international legislatures, including the United Kingdom's, the administration has begun testing with simulations of a hybrid model and will soon be ready to go beyond what has already been achieved with the virtual meetings of the special committee. This hybrid model would allow the deliberative aspects of the proceedings to continue throughout the pandemic with options for all members to participate. In this model, minimum changes to the House's rules would be required to allow its deliberations to continue, all while incorporating members' virtual participation.
As to the second operating function of the House, its decision-making authority, the challenge is greater. The standing orders that define this function are closely connected to the physical presence of members in the House itself. A more extensive review is required of the procedural mechanisms involved.
I was informed that the House administration is ready to provide detailed advice and options once it has received some direction from the committee as to what kind of approach it would like to consider. The technology is available and the rules can be adapted, and while the time to do this is tight, it can be done so as to leverage the capabilities of virtual sittings during the period of this pandemic.
Once this committee has determined the types of deliberations it would recommend to the House that the House undertake during the current crisis, and how much virtual participation it would like to see in those deliberations, we can begin implementing as quickly as possible. Whatever the deliberations, they will involve the participation of all members, all the while respecting physical distancing and travel guidelines.
Similarly, once the committee has decided on how it would see the House exercise its decision-making function during this time, we will develop specific options for consideration. This would be in line with the incremental approach that I strongly recommended in my initial appearance.
With that, the Clerk and I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have. Thank you.