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Canada is an outlier as another hybrid Parliament resumes

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As the House of Commons resumed sitting this week, Canada is an outlier.

Canadian politicians are voting, debating, and listening to their colleagues in a hybrid Parliament, with some members attending in-person and others continuing to participate online.

A look around the Western world shows that most countries have resumed normal business and in-person proceedings, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union parliament.

On top of that, the Canadian Parliament is also an outlier inside Canada, with all of Canada’s largest provinces moving back to in-person sittings recently.

In British Columbia, the legislature introduced a safe-return protocol for the fall sitting a year ago, bringing most MLAs back to Victoria. The legislative assembly in Ontario resumed this summer without any COVID-19 measures in place. In Alberta, the legislature never fully switched from in-person sittings, with only a brief period of remote voting in May 2021.

Canada’s hybrid Parliament has divided politicians, much the same way that “back to the office” movements have divided Canadians in their workplaces.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has argued for a permanent hybrid Parliament that would encourage more people to get into politics by reducing the onerous travel regime and providing more flexibility.

The Conservative opposition, on the other hand, has argued for an immediate return to fully in-person proceedings, arguing that the government is avoiding accountability by conducting its business on Zoom.

“It reduces the accountability because they don’t have to be physically present to answer pressing questions. They can often read from scripts on their screen without having the physical cut and thrust of debate,” said Conservative MP Michael Chong on an episode of Hub Dialogues this week.

“In addition, they don’t have to physically attend to the House. In other words, they don’t have to go through the press gallery that is sitting in the foyer that sits in front of the entrance to the House of Commons. They can avoid the scrutiny of dozens of journalists who are eager to ask them questions about their portfolios,” said Chong.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said he mostly favoured a hybrid Parliament but has noticed that it’s harder for members of Parliament to build relationships in a virtual setting.

“In politics, my experience has been that it makes it even harder to build cross-party coalitions to get things done, especially with MPs who one hasn’t already built a relationship with before virtual work,” said Erskine-Smith.

Any shift to a hybrid Parliament would have to be accompanied by a “firmer in-person component for relationship building,” he said.

After only two years, the effects of the switch to a hybrid Parliament are hard to untangle. In mid-2020, Carleton political science professor Jonathan Malloy identified some areas that would be worth watching in the revamped Parliament.

He predicted that the ever-present tension between Parliament’s dual functions of representation and governance (or accountability) would be worsened by the crisis.

Chong and other members of the opposition have argued that the virtual proceedings can only have a negative effect on their ability to hold the government to account because ministers can more easily evade questions with prepared remarks, which are technically not allowed during question period, or skip out on question period without the obvious tell-tale sign of an empty chair.

In terms of representation, the effect could be more mixed, Malloy argues. For one, it could boost attendance in the virtual House of Commons because MPs who are sick or otherwise unable to attend in person can attend virtually, representing their constituents in a way that would have been impossible any other time.

The Conservative MP Scott Reid, though, has argued that individual MPs can more easily be marginalized by party leadership when Parliament is being conducted remotely, limiting the ability of MPs to represent their constituents.

Reid ripped his own party leadership, and others, for conducting backroom deals while MPs were absent.

“A new convention will have emerged: That on any occasion when a new and unexpected crisis arises, MPs may be ordered to stay home by their respective party leaders so that some kind of elite-level deal may be executed to apply their votes in their absence,” said Reid in March 2020 when the parties were undergoing the first round of talks about how to conduct business during a pandemic.

Malloy described Reid’s comments as precisely articulating the tension between governance and representation.

Although it may be tempting to view the divide on hybrid legislatures as a result of the governments looking to avoid accountability, it hasn’t always broken down those lines in Canada. For example, in Alberta, the governing United Conservative Party was pushing for in-person legislative sessions while the opposition NDP argued for a hybrid legislature.

It’s also not individual MPs trying to lighten the load of the punishing travel schedules that our politicians often have to contend with. Federally, the Conservatives have a big contingent of MPs from Alberta and British Columbia, with some of the longest flights to Ottawa, and the party has been pushing for in-person Parliament. In Alberta, the NDP argued for a hybrid legislature, despite most of its members being within driving distance of the building in Edmonton.

A hybrid Parliament could allow a new crop of potential MPs to consider the job, but it can’t be an excuse to stay home permanently, said Duff Conacher, the co-founder of the advocacy group Democracy Watch.

“I don’t think that you should never have to go to Ottawa. And you can see that happening more in a majority government situation where someone would say, ‘I’m never going,'” said Conacher.

“I don’t think that should be allowed, because I think it is important for in-person relationships and exchanges to happen between members from different parties.”

‘Remote work can actually be more productive’: More Hub readers respond to the work-from-home phenomenon

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Here at The Hub we are convinced that delays in getting back to the office and now the rise of so-called “quiet quitting” risk having significant consequences for individual Canadians, the economy, and our broader society that need to be better understood and debated.

We recently ran an editorial that made the case for getting back to the office, but we don’t want to have the last word on the subject. We put out the call for Hub readers to respond with their own experiences and are delighted to share the latest sample of comments and feedback. We will continue to share your feedback as it comes in.

If you would like to tell us about your own empty office experience or contribute to this discussion, please email us at editorial@thehub.ca or contact us anonymously via our online submission form.

Remote work can actually be more productive

I’m a manager for ten-plus finance professionals at a resource-based employer in Western Canada. We worked from home very effectively through the pandemic, churning out scenario after scenario, and analyzing the range of potential business outcomes due to the pandemic disruption. Our team knocked it out of the park while working from home, and leadership noticed. I found my team’s quality was up because distractions were down, young parents were more rested, and we all understood that this was our opportunity to show that this operating model had merit. We engage via video regularly and have set up chats for the typical office banter.

In my experience, the most resistant managers are those that didn’t want remote work to ever be successful because they are not disciplined enough to self-manage and had not already established the authority and relationships to effectively pivot their teams when needed. They are not able to lead remotely so they push to get back to face to face. Oh, and they are typically over 50, white, and male. They feel a much strong sense of “belonging” in the office than the rest of us. If you want something to fail, it will. We want the remote model to succeed and I’m confident it will. If not today, then in five years when they have all moved on. Patience, grasshoppers.

Government unions are the real issue

The real issue is allowing unions in a monopoly environment. With no competition, government unionized employees will always get much more than private employees.

Work from home solidifies class privilege

Your Hub Roundtable discussion about the return to the office (or resistance to doing so) on the part of the public sector had a more practical edge that was very useful. The public sector’s attempts to transform the privilege of working from home into a right is indeed problematic from the perspective of social justice. Unfortunately, it is almost invisible to unions, the government as an employer, and most public servants after years of interpreting “privilege” and social justice solely in terms of race and gender. Class considerations are almost considered a red herring. For certain jobs, hybrid or remote work makes sense. For others, it does not. In either case, its widespread practice solidifies and exacerbates privilege, even if such work arrangements make sense and are a serious boon to individuals.

As a public servant myself, it is disturbing to see how few of my colleagues are willing to see beyond their interests as public servants to the interests of the public service itself—or are simply uninterested in doing so. But there are consequences for both individual public servants and the public service as a whole. We are going to become increasingly hated by the Canadian public, and one day there will be a well-deserved reckoning that will result in significant layoffs and real damage to the public service. Most of us are motivated by a genuine desire to serve our fellow citizens, yet some are unable to see beyond their own convenience.

Over the past week or so, I have been annoyed by the typical antipathy to the public service expressed by The Hub, but that is independent of the real concerns that have been raised about the direction things are going. The balance will reinstate itself, but the further it weighs on one side of the scale, the uglier the correction will be.