Personal contact can be an important part of parliamentary democracy

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With the House of Commons and Senate shut down, except for two emergency one-day sessions, talk has turned to the idea of a "virtual parliament." Arguably, this may be a good idea in the circumstances, especially for the perception of Parliament. A prolonged suspension of Parliament runs the danger of a key aspect of our democracy being seen as non-essential in a time of crisis. So whatever the virtues or vices of such a virtual parliament might be, its outstanding virtue would be to redeem any such danger, and establish the importance of Parliament, and its function of holding the government accountable, even, and especially, in trying times. Canadians would of course then have to judge for themselves which political parties and parliamentarians conducted themselves with due respect for the balance between the need for unity of purpose in a crisis, and the role of constructive inquiry and criticism.  

After all, the British House of Commons continued to meet during the Second World War, even when it was in danger of being bombed in the early years of the war. And Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw it as his duty to meet the House, answer questions, and engage in debate. The sessions were often held in secret, out of deference to the danger of being an easier target if it was known when they were meeting, but meet they did. A virtual parliament would similarly make things difficult for the current enemy, COVID-19, to attack the nation's democratic heart.

But there is a long term danger in the idea of a virtual parliament itself, should it exist for some time. In my view, it would be the unfortunate crowning glory of a cumulative process which has over the last three decades seen members of Parliament spend less time with each other in personal interaction, both politically and personally, and particularly interacting with members of other parties. So without falling prey to the temptation of seeing the "good old days" through rose-coloured or sentimental glasses, there are some things to be noted that a virtual parliament would exacerbate greatly.

When I first became a member of Parliament in 1979, MPs spent more informal time with their colleagues from their own party and colleagues from other parties than they do now. This, in my view, was a good thing and often led to better understanding of where colleagues were coming from in their different points of view. For a variety of institutional, political and technological reasons that sometimes intersected, this kind of contact has fallen away.

The parliamentary restaurant, before it became a favourite political football for the Reform party, was a place where MPs sat at tables together, and were able to have lengthy informal discussions. It was also a place where MPs might have occasion to be introduced to the families and friends of other MPs, of their own party and of other parties. Soon it started to fall into relative disuse. One of the results was that sometime in the mid-'90s, lunch began to be served in the parliamentary lobbies, which meant that MPs ate pretty much on the run, and without the kind of opportunities for real discussion that the restaurant provided. They also only eat, however fleetingly, with their own.

Of greater significance was the onset of the cell phone. I used to value sharing a cab with a fellow MP from the Ottawa airport on a Monday morning. It was a time to talk without interruption about the issues of the day, before arriving at the office to deal with the demands of the day. With the advance of the cell phone, I soon found myself in the back of cabs listening to a fellow MP talking to their office. And in the lobby it soon became common for MPs to be sitting close to each other, but busy on their phones talking to someone else. Having said this, I realize that this frequent lack of being present to those in your physical company is a feature of the age we live in, and is not peculiar to MPs. But it comes with a cost.

Thirty-five years ago I was part of the special committee on reform of the House of Commons which recommended electronic voting. It never happened. And I was glad that it didn't. Because I came to realize that if MPs could just come into the House, push a button, and leave, one of the most valuable times in parliamentary life would have been lost. The way the current voting works, the bells ring until the party whips are satisfied that all are present for the vote. In the half hour leading up to the vote, the House fills up in anticipation of the vote, and members can be observed in the aisle talking to colleagues from other parties, and even more important, to cabinet ministers. Ministers are hard to actually reach by phone, or letter. Yet, in my experience, many an important constituency matter or policy issue has been advanced by the availability of ministers for conversation while waiting for the vote.

All this is by way of saying that the personal dimension can be a critical part of a healthy and effective parliamentary institution. My hope is that a "virtual parliament," should it come to pass as a necessity, will be only a temporary worsening of an already unfortunate trend, and not something that, even after it is over, unintentionally contributes to a parliamentary culture that is even less collegial than ever.

Bill Blaikie, former MP and MLA, writes on Canadian politics, political parties and Parliament.

Image: Scazon/Flickr

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