Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to this important issue. I will give a little history lesson in a moment, but first I would like to build on some of the things we have already established about the hybrid Parliament.
The Leader of the Government in the House of Commons was quite right a few minutes ago when he said that, on March 13, 2020, all the parties came together and agreed to suspend Parliament. We knew that the pandemic was coming and that we could not have all 338 members in the same room, with COVID‑19 having begun to wreak havoc across the country. On March 13, 2020, we unanimously decided to suspend Parliament and set up what has since become the virtual Parliament we know today. It has set an example for the whole world. Other parliaments have permanently adopted rules for a virtual or hybrid assembly. Today, we are discussing the next steps we might take.
In Parliament, we are not supposed to mention absences. However, at the beginning of the pandemic, we had the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the House of Commons gave the rate of participation this one rare time. It was reported in the June 23, 2020, edition of The Globe and Mail. In the COVID‑19 committee of this virtual Parliament, the NDP had the highest participation rate with 85%.
The Liberals were second with 76%, as The Globe and Mail reported in June 2020. The Bloc Québécois was at 73% at that time, in 2020. The Conservative Party had the lowest participation rate with only 47%. That caused a bit of a stir.
This was in June 2020. Today, three years later, we have beaten COVID-19 in most respects, but we must remain prudent and take measures to protect our health. The same applies to virtual voting. In June 2023, we see it once again.
The lowest rate of virtual voting translates into the highest attendance in the House, and the NDP wins again, albeit tied with the Conservatives, at 58%. The Liberals are at 65%, and the Bloc Québécois uses virtual voting 80% of the time. This gives an idea of how the NDP uses both virtual Parliament and virtual voting. The NDP has the highest participation rate in both of those categories.
Some people wonder whether the hybrid Parliament means that we will be working less actively. That is certainly not the case for the NDP, as the NDP members have proven. Our leader, the member for Burnaby South, has repeatedly pointed out that we are still working, but that there are some exceptions. I will come back to these exceptions later.
Given that the NDP has the highest attendance record in terms of virtual Parliament, the voting application and in the House, we have to look at, historically, how we have come to a point where the New Democrats support the idea of moving ahead with a hybrid Parliament that has been tested over the course of the last three years.
I know the Speaker is well aware of this, but historically we have changed the Standing Orders to reflect new technology and new trends. We just have to look at how Parliament functioned prior to the development of commercial air travel in this country. For somebody like me living 5,000 kilometres from Ottawa, the commute, even with air travel, sometimes takes 24 hours. When we think of the commute for northern members of Parliament and rural members of Parliament in British Columbia, at both ends of the country, we are talking about commutes that are sometimes extremely demanding.
If we went back 100 years, the member of Parliament for New Westminster at that time would have taken a slow train to travel across the country in mid-fall and basically set up lodgings in Ottawa. They would not have gone back to their ridings. They would not have gone back to British Columbia. They would spend the winter in Ottawa doing the work that we now do, in a contemporary sense, and they would have done it for four, five or six months. Then in the spring, they would have taken that slow train back to see their constituents.
Obviously, at that time, for members of Parliament to actively engage with their constituents and be effective for their constituents was hard to do if they had not been in the constituency for six months. With the development of commercial air travel, we changed the development of the parliamentary calendar. We no longer have that six month block where members are in Ottawa to the exclusion of their constituencies. In fact, now we have constituency breaks, and because of those constituency breaks, we can be back in our ridings meeting with constituents, who are fundamentally our bosses, a lot more often.
In other words, with the development of commercial air travel, we understood that the important role of a member of Parliament was to be serving constituents. We therefore changed the Standing Orders. We changed the calendar. We developed a new system to respond to the ability of a member of Parliament, even from New Westminster—Burnaby in British Columbia, to fly out and fly back, to see their constituents and to still do their work in Ottawa.
COVID has allowed us to innovate yet again. We have seen the technologies that have allowed other parliaments to meet in a hybrid way, with some members in person and other members participating online. As a result of that, they have become more effective and more efficient. There is no doubt that a member of Parliament who is in their constituency is going to be a lot better at responding to the needs of constituents.
I want to give a shout-out to my staff team. They do tremendous work. We have helped thousands of constituents over the course of the last few years. The fact is that we work together to help constituents with a wide variety of cases before the federal government, even consumer cases, and with other things they need vital help with. This is a key part of the job. It is as important to me and my constituents for me to be working in my riding as it is to do that valuable work in Ottawa. There is a balance that has to be maintained, and with the idea of a hybrid Parliament, what we have found over the last three years is that we can do that work more effectively.
The member for Vancouver East raised a question half an hour or 45 minutes ago about when she became sick with COVID. The reality is that many members of Parliament, during the COVID pandemic, became sick and were unable to come here. In fact, we did not want them in the House of Commons. We did not want them spreading the virus. We did not want the House of Commons to become a vector for the virus.
The reality is, she was able, through hybrid Parliament, even while sick and this is the same case for every one of those members of Parliament who found themselves in a similar situation, to vote and to make her voice heard in the halls of power in the House of Commons, even while being sick with COVID, and we know that COVID cases often last for weeks.
That is also the case when we are talking about serious issues that come up in our ridings in emergencies. We are seeing now, because of climate change, an increasing in floods and forest fires. We are seeing, tragically, right across this country an outbreak of fires that we have not seen the likes of before. I know with climate change as well, the heat dome fell over the Lower Mainland. It killed dozens of my constituents and killed over 600 British Columbians. It is another example of the tragic catastrophes that are happening increasingly because of climate change. Atmospheric rivers have cut British Columbia off from the rest of the country. Therefore, the catastrophic impacts of climate change are felt more and more often. A member of Parliament then has to choose between serving their constituents and being able to advocate for their constituents. Whether it is a forest fire ravaging and threatening some of the major towns or villages in their riding or a heat dome that has settled over the city that is killing many of their constituents or the floods that have hit so many parts of this country, members of Parliament need to be able to intervene on behalf of their constituents. It is a much more effective intervention if they can do it on the ground as they are with their constituents and they see the needs that are there.
The government House leader also mentioned another element, and this I understand from first-hand experience. That is family crises that we all live through as members of Parliament. We are trying to get the job done on behalf of our constituents. We are trying to serve the country and build a country that really reflects the values that most of us share, but when family emergencies happen, up until COVID there were incredibly stark choices presented to people. A member of Parliament who had a dying relative would have to choose whether they needed to be with that relative or they needed to serve their constituents. We know that our constituents' needs are significant and we need to be at all times trying to advocate for them.
When my mother fell sick for the final time last year, I was able to participate through virtual Parliament. I was able to hold her hand when she passed away and it was a heartbreaking and terrible time for my family. It was unbelievably difficult, but I could still do the work, while being at her bedside.
These are the things that a make a hybrid Parliament something that opens the door for far more Canadians, if they do not have to make those stark choices. If they are sick, they will serve their constituents. If there are emergencies in their riding, they can still serve their constituents. In fact they can advocate for their constituents from that constituency while talking to their constituents. In the event of family tragedies that we all struggle to get through, we still can do the work that is so important and be with our family members and help them.
This is the world's largest democracy. It is a 5,000-kilometre commute from my riding. When we talk about members of Parliament from northern British Columbia and northern Canada and from Vancouver Island, they have an even farther commute. With air travel these days and the difficulty we are having with some of the air travel networks, increasingly it is challenging to get from the constituency to Ottawa.
Given all of those elements, there is no doubt that a hybrid Parliament makes the most sense.
A number of issues have been raised through this debate thus far. One issue that has been raised is the question of accessibility to ministers. My experience under the Harper regime, which I lived through first-hand, with a majority government, was that while there were exceptions like Jim Flaherty, who was always available to talk, quite frankly most of the ministers were not, even though we were in physical proximity, even though we were a few feet away, even though we approached them. In so many cases, there was a complete unwillingness to engage with members of the opposition. That argument, that somehow ministers will be more accessible if one is in physical proximity with them, has certainly not been my experience.
It was not my experience during those years and, quite frankly, if a minister wants to be accessible, they will be accessible whether we are three feet away or 3,000 kilometres away. They will take one's call. That has been my experience.
Secondly, as to the issue of whether this should be permanent or subject to a sunset clause, quite frankly, Parliaments make their decisions. There is no doubt about that. The reality is that we have had three years to test this system. We know that there are still some improvements to make but we know, as well, that the system works, that members of Parliament can participate. They can vote and it is done effectively.
For this, I pay tribute to the House of Commons administration, our IT staff and the interpreting staff, who do such a remarkable job each and every day. The reality is that they created a system out of nothing, at a time when it was critical to put in place provisions for a temporary virtual Parliament and then a hybrid Parliament. They put in the long hours to make sure that everything was functioning.
Although we still have a lot of work to do to ensure the health and safety of interpreters, who do a remarkable job, without whom our Parliament simply could not function, and we still have improvements to make, the reality is that the system is working very effectively.
If Parliament reflects the country, what we are trying to do is open the doors to people who have families, people who come from communities that are not represented or are under-represented in the House of Commons. We need to make provisions like a hybrid Parliament. It is not only more effective for the constituents, it is also effective in attracting people to political life, which is very demanding. We work seven days a week. We sometimes work 20 hours a day. We need to make sure that more Canadians from diverse origins have access to our political system.
The way to do that is to have tools in place so that those new members, those upcoming members and those future members can really advocate on behalf of their constituents in the most effective way possible.
Living in a country as vast and as diverse as ours, where a 5,000-kilometre commute is sometimes necessary, we need to ensure that we put in place all of these measures. We know that they have worked. They have worked very effectively. They were established by consensus, unanimously, and, as a result of that, we are the better for it.
As far as the New Democrats are concerned, we believe that this is an important innovation that should be continued. That is why we will be voting yes on this motion and putting in place a virtual Parliament that can really serve the interests of all Canadians.