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‘Parliament works when it’s seen to work’: MPs continue to bicker over pros and cons of virtual Parliament

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The vast majority of Canadians have returned to the office after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many workers back into their homes and onto interminable Zoom calls.

Polling shows a deep divide among Canadians about returning to the office and a similar debate has broken out among the country’s members of Parliament, who will be conducting another year of hybrid proceedings, with some members in-person and others appearing virtually.

Even Canada’s political scientists are split on what this means for the health of our democracy.

“Parliament must not only work, it must be seen to work for Canadians to understand what government does and why it’s important,” said Kathy L. Brock, a professor of political studies at Queen’s University, at a meeting of the Procedure and House Affairs committee on Thursday.

“It’s when the legislature is in operation, when there’s accountability, that you get transparency and government seems to work better and people believe their views are being heard,” said Brock.

Two University of Calgary political scientists, appearing virtually, argued that the benefits of better representation in Parliament outweighed the downsides.

“We know from decades of research that it is disproportionately women who are systematically selecting out,” said Melanee Thomas, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

“When it comes to parliamentary debate, providing you the option to participate remotely ensures that members of Parliaments’ voices are heard, and their constituents can be represented even when the MP is unable to be physically present in Ottawa due to illness, caregiving responsibilities or whatever else might arise,” said Thomas.

Erica Rayment, who is also a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, said that because she is 39 weeks pregnant, the issue is salient for her.

“It would not have been an option for me to come to Ottawa. No airline would let me step onto an airplane at this present time,” said Rayment.

“So if that were the case, if the only way for me to have participated were to have been in person then I would not have had the opportunity to participate,” she said.

With the decision to carry on with a hybrid Parliament, the Canadian House of Commons is quickly becoming an outlier, with Canada’s major provinces moving back to in-person sittings and most Western parliamentary democracies also following suit.

For some, this is a good thing, opening up the job of MP to people who would otherwise decline to endure the vagaries of political life which, for some members, could include long stretches away from home and long flights every couple of weeks. For others, like Conservative MP Michael Chong, it lets the government away with less accountability, allowing ministers to hide behind computer screens during question period and read prepared remarks, rather than engaging directly with an opposition critic.

“The current system of hybrid sittings does two things. It makes Parliament much less efficient. It takes a lot longer to get things done, and the second thing is it significantly reduces the accountability of the government to the House,” said Chong, in a recent interview with The Hub.

At Thursday’s committee, Liberal MP Ruby Sahota argued that although hybrid Parliament has shortcomings, it does allow ministers to take part in House proceedings and question period when they are travelling. Previously, they wouldn’t have been able to do so.

Conservative MP Brad Vis complained that the virtual proceedings made it easier for the government to marginalize its backbenchers and simply allow a few MPs to dominate House of Commons debate.

Thomas said she questioned the premise that a virtual Parliament automatically means less accountability and pointed out that working virtually was simply an option for MPs, not something that would happen permanently.

Brock argued that the raucous exchanges that typically happen during an in-person question period may actually benefit the government.

“I believe that when ministers answer with notes or resort to paper and perhaps don’t consider people’s reactions, or the body language that you get, there can often be an inhibiting of the exchange between parliamentarians,” said Brock.

Brock argued that a strong reaction from the opposition in the House can be valuable intelligence for a government, especially in a minority Parliament, and may even lead to amendments to policies.

“This is a question of how Parliament functions, and what people learn from each other,” said Brock.

Old tensions are still alive in the UCP leadership race

News

The deadline for mail-in ballots in the United Conservative Party leadership race was Monday, meaning that Alberta’s next premier has likely already been chosen. All that remains is to count the votes on Thursday evening and find out who it is.

Although the betting favourite is former radio host Danielle Smith, the contest goes beyond the individuals running to lead the UCP and has broken down along old fault lines in the conservative movement.

As former leader of the Wildrose Party, Smith is the standard bearer for the grassroots members and she’s fighting an old grudge against the Progressive Conservative wing of the party, which leans a little more moderate and institutionalist.

Although the two parties merged in 2017, the divisions remained and were at least partly responsible for the ouster of Premier Jason Kenney, whose resignation sparked the leadership race.

“No other party has this sort of infighting, no conservative leader has survived a term in office since Ralph Klein in 2000,” says Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.

Karamveer Lalh, a former UCP staffer and Hub contributor, believes the divide still lives but manifests in different ways. 

“I think currently the main divide within the party is more of a pro-establishment, read pro-Kenney, versus anti-establishment,” says Lalh. “There’s a correlation between the PCs and Wildrose in those two camps, respectively.” 

Of the candidates running, Bratt says a few carry some characteristics of the defunct PCs and its appeal to urban Alberta, especially Travis Toews. Kenney’s former finance minister, Toews has also served on the boards of several corporations and represented Canada on international trade committees before entering politics. 

“He’s the establishment candidate, he’s the one who works with big business,” says Bratt. 

Despite his work in the corporate world, Toews is also a rancher from rural Alberta. Bratt sees him as someone who can bridge the gap between rural and urban Alberta, an opinion shared by the candidate himself. 

“I’m comfortable in downtown Edmonton and Calgary for sure, but my roots are planted deep in rural Alberta,” Toews told The Hub in an exclusive interview. 

Bratt sees the leadership election as rural Alberta’s opportunity to finally take control of the UCP and govern Alberta. Although he says some rural supporters have lined up behind Toews, others are backing Smith.

Smith, a former journalist, radio host, and Wildrose leader, re-entered politics last March with the intention of leading the UCP. Her campaign is centred around radically increasing Alberta’s autonomy from Ottawa, more so than any other Alberta premier has ever before. 

With a federal Liberal government determined to levy carbon taxes and place more restrictions on the province’s energy-dominated economy, tensions between Alberta and Ottawa are red-hot. 

Every candidate in the race has promised to stand up to Ottawa, but Smith has gone the furthest by proposing the Alberta Sovereignty Act. The controversial law would supposedly allow Alberta to refuse to enforce any federal policy that threatens Alberta’s interests or provincial rights. Legal analysts have called it unworkable and unconstitutional

Yet Smith, with her insistence on unprecedented autonomy for Alberta, has outpolled Toews and former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, who is also running, among UCP members. 

“Smith has attracted some Wildrose supporters, but also people even further Right. Some who have never voted before,” says Bratt. 

However, polling of the broader public suggests most Albertans have little enthusiasm for the Alberta Sovereignty Act, which Smith promises to introduce immediately if she becomes premier. Bratt says the UCP’s appeal, which Toews acknowledges is already smaller than the PC tent was at different times in recent history, is likely to shrink further if Smith wins. 

“I suspect that regardless of who wins the leadership, the UCP will win a reduced majority government in Spring 2023,” says Lalh. 

There were warning signs even in the early days of the UCP that the marriage could be rocky. Kenney became the UCP’s inaugural leader in 2017 in a battle against Jean. 

Kenney was also the last leader of the PCs, who had previously governed Alberta continuously from 1971 to 2015 as a moderate, big-tent party that leaned broadly centre-right. The PCs were also historically known for defending Alberta’s provincial rights against federal encroachment. 

Most notably, PC Premier Peter Lougheed (1971-1985) strongly opposed Ottawa’s National Energy Program (NEP), which enabled the federal government to regulate the supply and price of Alberta’s lavish oil and gas exports. The NEP created intergenerational bitterness between Alberta and Ottawa that continues to be felt. 

Rural ridings were the PC’s electoral backbone, while the leadership’s moderate attitude also made it attractive to urban and suburban voters. Lougheed himself represented a Calgary riding, and nearly all of Lougheed’s successors represented ridings in Calgary or Edmonton.

From 1971 to 2015, the formula worked. However, the PCs had to contend with growing frustration from rural constituents that eventually bubbled over. 

There were many reasons for this, including the party’s often heavy-handed approach to governing, particularly in the energy sector, and the mostly urban leadership’s comfortable relationship with “Big Oil” in downtown Calgary. 

It resulted in the emergence of the rural-based Wildrose Party, a far more ideologically conservative party that drew support from the disgruntled PC base in rural Alberta. In the 2015 provincial election, the Brian Jean-led Wildrose’s popularity overtook the PCs. The result was a New Democratic Party (NDP) victory, with only 41 percent of the vote, while the PCs and Wildrose split 52 percent between them. 

Much of rural Alberta was in the Wildrose’s hands, and the PCs were reduced to a rump with nine seats, mostly in suburban Calgary. Jason Kenney soon emerged from Ottawa to take over the PCs and initiated the merger with Wildrose within months. 

A committed economic and social conservative, Kenney’s convictions were at odds with the typically moderate PC approach. 

“I don’t believe he (Kenney) was ever a PC’er,” says Bratt. “When you look at Kenney’s ideological convictions, he was a much better fit with the Wildrose Party.”

After defeating Jean in the inaugural UCP leadership race, Kenney led the UCP to power, winning a large majority of seats in the 2019 provincial election. 

Nonetheless, Kenney was criticized by Jean for governing in a top-down manner that still bothered many grassroots supporters. Bratt says the dissatisfaction began with Kenney winning the UCP leadership, and his cabinet decisions soon thereafter. 

“The only reason he won a majority was rural seats where he won 39 out of 41 of them, and put basically every MLA from Calgary in his cabinet and left out rural Alberta,” says Bratt.

Jean also blames Kenney’s cabinet decisions for the UCP’s continued infighting. 

“I think that’s why we’re in the position we’re in right now,” says Jean. “I thought it was a very poor job of making sure each part of Alberta felt represented.” 

Dissatisfaction with Kenney only increased with his handling of the pandemic, resulting in a leadership review last May. Although Kenney won by 51 to 48 percent, the narrow margin resulted in his resignation and the start of its current leadership race. 

The UCP leadership race concludes on October 6.