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MPs need to get back to work too: MP Michael Chong voices his concerns about virtual Parliament

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Conservative MP Michael Chong on the need to restore in-person sittings in the House of Commons and a look ahead at the issues that will animate the new parliamentary session.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Michael Chong, the member of parliament for Wellington-Halton Hills and the Conservative Party’s shadow foreign affairs minister. I’m grateful to speak with him about the upcoming parliamentary session, including the persistence of hybrid sittings and why he thinks MPs need to get back to work. Michael, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Great to be here, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: Parliament, like other workplaces, needed to adapt to COVID-era lockdowns and restrictions, and that came to manifest itself in what’s become known as hybrid Parliament. What does that mean in practice and what’s it been like?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Well, what it means is that Parliament really is operating on two parallel ways. One is Parliament which we’ve always known about, which is in-person sittings, whether it’s on the floor of the House of Commons or it’s at one of two dozen House of Commons committees. Up until the pandemic, everything was done in a physical forum where you had to be physically present in the House of Commons or in one of its two dozen committees to participate.

When the pandemic came a virtual Parliament was established in parallel to the physical sittings and that virtual Parliament exists on Zoom, and so members can participate in either person or they can participate over Zoom, whether it’s in the proceedings of the House of Commons itself or in one of its two dozen committees.

SEAN SPEER: You recently posted a social media clip of one of your parliamentary speeches in which you make the case for ending hybrid Parliament in favour of a full return to in-person sittings. As of today’s recording, it has nearly 160,000 views and counting. What’s your argument, Michael? Why are in-person sittings better than hybrid Parliament?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Well first off let me say, we are an outlier, again, amongst democracies in that we’re the only major democracy to still sit in this hybrid format, even though the pandemic has passed us. The period is now well in the past. If you look at the United States Congress, they’re not sitting in a hybrid format. If you look at the European Parliament, they’re not sitting in a hybrid format. If you look at the U.K. parliament, they abandoned hybrid sittings in July of last year, over a year ago. We’re an outlier.

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. I can expand on those points later if you wish.

SEAN SPEER: Yes, let’s pick up the accountability point in particular because I suspect that that’s something that listeners would zero in on. How has hybrid Parliament undermined the role of parliament in holding the government to account, in your view?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Well, first off, ministers frequently aren’t physically present in the House or its two dozen committees. They simply Zoom in from home and it not only reduces the decorum and the dignity of the House, and thereby its authority, because many times they’re in their living rooms or in some casual setting wearing casual clothes. It also 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.

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. In so many ways it reduces accountability, not to mention the fact that it really slows down the work of the House and its committees.

SEAN SPEER: I would just say in parentheses for listeners, I’ve observed some of the question period sessions in the hybrid parliamentary model and it seems to me the tendency for ministerial answers to be detached from questions is only heightened in an environment where you’re not facing your questioner face to face. Michael, what is behind the persistence of hybrid Parliament anyway? Who’s behind it, and what’s the motivation?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Well, quite simply, two people are behind it. It’s the government House leader and the House leader of the New Democratic Party. Both of them have worked together to ram through a motion that prolongs hybrid Parliament when it should have been ended long ago. We are in this situation because these two House officers have decided that it works for them. All it does is it weakens the accountability of the government to the House.

I might add, I think the NDP, who are participating in this, are doing so because they’re, essentially, in a confidence and supply agreement with the government. So they’re comfortable in supporting the government and propping it up and don’t have a focus on accountability like the other opposition parties do.

I might add, Sean, it takes a lot longer to get things done and it weakens the authority of the House. I’ll give you one little example of what I’m talking about to highlight this situation.

We have hundreds of votes a year in the House of Commons. Votes on everything from legislation to motions to orders of the House. In some years, I think we could up have upwards of 500 votes, so we vote a lot. That’s to give your audience a sense of how important voting is and how often it takes place and how much time it consumes. Before hybrid Parliament, a typical vote could be conducted in eight minutes of 337 members of parliament who voted.

There are 338 members of parliament, but one of them’s the speaker, so 337 members could vote in eight minutes. Every single member would stand in their place and indicate their yay or nay for a particular vote. There was public accountability about how that vote was done, and all members could see, because everybody was present in the House, who was voting which way.

With hybrid you lose that. You don’t see the other members on mass voting because they’re voting on an electronic app. It’s often hard to figure out who’s voted which way, and you lose a bit of the ability to talk to other members about their votes and to understand where they’re coming from. The other thing that’s happened is that votes take almost double the time they previously did, and so they now take upwards of 12 minutes to conduct a vote.

If you multiply that across 500 votes a year, you’re looking at a lot of lost hours in the House of Commons because of the electronic voting app. Additionally, the perverse incentive the system provides is not to attend to the House and not to physically be present in the House for a vote. Here’s why. When you’re on the electronic voting app, all you need to do is literally take about 10 seconds to vote on your iPhone and then you’re done, and then you can go back to doing your work in your office or doing your laundry at home or, frankly, jogging down the street or whatever the case may be.

You can do whatever you want after you’ve completed that electronic voting on your iPhone app that took about 10 seconds. But the members in the House have to remain in their seats for the entire duration of the vote, from the beginning to the end, and are not allowed to do something else. They’re not allowed to get up and go to the bathroom, they’re not allowed to go and do some research in the library of Parliament, they’re not allowed to do anything.

They have to remain in their seats for the duration of the vote, which takes now 12 or 13 minutes. Not only does it take a lot longer to do the vote, but there’s also actually a perverse incentive to completely bypass the House of Commons and instead stay away from Parliament and use the electronic voting app. This is just one example of the myriad of changes that hybrid Parliament has introduced that have weakened the authority and the processes in the House of Commons.

SEAN SPEER: As you say, Michael, not only are there these efficiency and accountability questions, there’s also just something off about the symbolism of parliamentary votes occurring the same way that people use Tinder, swiping to the left or the right. What has been the reaction to your speech? What do your parliamentary colleagues think? And, more importantly, what have you heard from your constituents?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Well, first off, the reaction has been heartening. I’ve been surprised at the number of people who have come up to me over the last several months and said, “Look, I listened to your speech on the House and I really agree with you, and I hope these proposed reforms in this end to hybrid Parliament happens.” It’s been heartening to hear from ordinary Canadians who are strongly in support and who are concerned about what’s going on.

A lot of my colleagues, most of my colleagues—in fact, I would say all of my colleagues—are strongly in support of ending the hybrid Parliament. The challenge is that we don’t have the majority of the votes as Commons, because while the Bloc Québécois in the Conservatives support ending hybrid Parliament, the NDP have a supplying confidence agreement with the Liberal government, and are supporting the Liberal government in extending hybrid Parliament.

I’ve heard from people though outside the Hill, ordinary people who follow politics who are very supportive of some of the reforms I proposed, but equally supportive in ending hybrid Parliament. That’s been very, very heartening to see.

SEAN SPEER: This is an empirical statement, but I think my hypothesis is right. It’s also the case that the Conservative caucus would be disproportionately representative of parts of the country where MPs have to travel a lot to get to Ottawa. It’s notable that it’s the Conservatives in the Bloc Québécois who support the return to normal sittings and the Liberals and the New Democrats by contrast who are generally more concentrated in and around central Canada and thus have to travel less are the ones maintaining the hybrid model.

On a separate yet related topic, Michael, you mentioned that, as part of this speech, you also set out three specific recommendations to strengthen the role of MPs and improve the functioning of Parliament. What are they and how would these reforms improve things?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Well, the three reforms, in brief, are first to get rid of the list system that has been placed now for decades, which essentially strips MPs of the right to speak in the House of Commons and instead gives that authority to the party leadership. The second set of reforms is to reform committees, where most of the work of the House of Commons is done, so that committee chairs and committee members are elected by their peers in the House of Commons through a secret ballot vote rather than being appointed by the party leaders.

The third set of reforms is to strip the Prime Minister of the powers of appointment he currently has over a myriad of posts that are fundamental to the functioning of the House of Commons, whether it be the law clerk and parliamentary counsel of the House of Commons, whether it be the clerk of the House of Commons, whether it be half of the members of the Board of Internal Economy or the sergeant at arms. Currently, all those positions are in effect appointed by the prime minister and in many respects beholden to him.

We’re unlike most other Westminster parliamentary systems in that the prime minister holds these powers. The third set of reforms I proposed was to strip the PM of those powers of appointment and instead give them either to the speaker of the House of Commons or to members of parliament on a secret ballot vote.

SEAN SPEER: I just have a final question on this topic and then I just want to look ahead to the upcoming parliamentary sitting. Michael, why do you care so much about Parliament and the independence of MPs? Why are these issues ones that you’ve chosen to champion in your political career?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Well, quite simply, Sean, I believe that Parliament is the most important thing that we have invented in our society. It is the most important thing that has ever been created. In Canada, it’s the most important thing because it’s laid the foundation for everything else. It’s laid the foundation for the rule of law, for the freedoms and liberties that we enjoy, for the justice that we enjoy, for the social outcomes we enjoy.

To be sure, there have been huge advancements in society and technology and medicine and so many other areas of our life, but they all rest on a foundation of Parliament.

Now, to be clear, I don’t mean Parliament in a very specific sense. I’m talking about a system of government that is embodied by checks and balances on power. What we call Parliament here in Canada and in the United Kingdom. Or they call Congress in the United States. They call the Assemblée Nationale in Paris. They call the House of Representatives and Senate in Australia, and so on and so forth.

What characterizes all of these systems of government is that they are democracies that are based on the fundamental principles of checks and balances on power. That the accountability is not just the single act of voting for five minutes in a general election every four years. The accountability is the ongoing checks and balances of power between the different parts of the system.

In our case, it’s between the head of government, our prime minister, and the legislature, our House of Commons, that takes place each and every day between the elections that take place once roughly every four years. I believe that those checks and balances on power, and the idea that power cannot rest in any one single place, have created the foundation for what we enjoy today.

If you look at history, the advances that we have made as democracies over the last several hundred years have been unprecedented in human history. As far back as we know from recorded history, we’ve never seen advances that we’ve seen in the last several centuries, most particularly advances that have largely come from democracies. Whether it’s the sharp decline in poverty that we’ve seen over the last several decades, whether it’s the advances in technology, whether it’s the advances in medicine, and so on and so forth, I believe strongly that this is the foundation: a democratic system of checks and balances in power.

That’s why I feel so passionately about renewing the system for the next generation of Canadians that will be elected to it because if we can renew this institution and make it relevant for the 21st century, make it a place where ordinary Canadians seek election and use their talents to advance the greater good, I think we’re going to have a future in this country that’s very bright and prosperous indeed. But if we don’t do those sorts of things and the institution atrophies by not keeping up with the times, then I fear for our children and grandchildren’s future.

SEAN SPEER: I said that this was my final question on the topic, but let me just slide one more in if you don’t mind in response to those terrific observations.

Our conversation so far has lamented the persistence of hybrid Parliament and its impact on accountability and so on, but the Conservative Party has just gone through a leadership race that was precipitated by members of the parliamentary caucus invoking your Reform Act and, in effect, exercising their democratic and parliamentary role in these matters. Is that a reason for optimism? And are there any other signs of optimism that Parliament as an institution is going through the reinvigoration that you’ve just talked about?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Yes, I think there’s cause for optimism. I think some of the changes that the Conservative caucus has implemented over the last several years are a cause for optimism. My hope is that other parliamentary party caucuses take a look at those changes and adopt them as well. Not necessarily in the exact same form perhaps in their own way, but I think it’s empowered the Conservative Party. It’s also I think ensured smooth transitions in power and I think is really a model that I hope other party caucuses take a look at.

I’m optimistic as well about the ongoing public interest in parliamentary reform. I think that’s ultimately what’s going to drive further changes in the House and in Parliament. It’s a wonderful system that we have. It’s endured for many centuries. I think there’s a new generation of Canadians that has taken interest in this whole topic, judging from the chats I have with students at schools across the land. Yes, I’m generally optimistic about where this all goes.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s move on to some of the issues that may dominate the forthcoming parliamentary session. In a March op-ed in the National Post, you called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “serious violation of international law” and called on the government to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. In the intervening months, a lot has happened, but in recent days, the Ukrainians seem to be effectively pushing back. What, at this point, Michael, should the Canadian government be doing to better support the Ukrainians?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: The single biggest thing we can do to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia is to cut off the source of funds for the Russian war machine. That, by far and away, is the most important thing we can do. Canada is not a big economy and does not have a big military. While military aid is important, it’s far outweighed by what we could do in cutting off the source of funds for Putin’s war machine.

The fact of the matter is that since the invasion began on February 24th, some six months ago, over $100 billion has been transferred from outside of Russia to Russian hands for the payment of oil and gas, far outweighing the totality of all Western military aid provided to Ukraine. Most of that oil and gas has been purchased by Western Europe from Russia.

Russia supplies some 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas, and Russia has used this not only to fund its war machine but to threaten Europeans and disunify the alliance by threatening to cut off the gas.

The one thing Canada could do, as the fifth-largest natural gas producer in the world, is we could make it our stated goal as a country to displace, let’s say, a third of all Russian gas in the next 12 to 18 months. This is technologically achievable. It is doable and, in fact, other countries are already doing that. The problem is the current Liberal Government has shown no interest in stepping up the plate to assist our allies in Western Europe in doing this.

Once again, we’re sitting on the sidelines pretending as if we can’t help. I think that’s a travesty for the alliance. I think it’s a travesty in terms of our proud traditions as Canadians in stepping up to the plate to help allies.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve also been very active on the China file, including the special committee on Canada-China relations. What did you think of U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan? And do you think Canadian parliamentarians should continue to visit Taiwan?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Absolutely. It’s been the longstanding policy of democracies, both Canada and the United States, as well as other democracies to send delegations of legislators to Taiwan. That has been going on for decades and Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was part of that longstanding convention and longstanding tradition. The fact that the Communist leadership in Beijing has changed their position on this whole matter is not something that should change our position on the question of China and Taiwan.

Taiwan is a first-world democracy with long-established principles that are based on freedom, the rule of law, and democratic rights. We should be supporting Taiwan as it struggles to establish itself against an ever-menacing China. In that context, I think the prime minister’s comments that suggest that the trip wasn’t appropriate are completely out of line. They’re not just out of line in terms of the current context, they’re out of line with longstanding Canadian policy.

SEAN SPEER: As for domestic policy, what are you going to be looking for in the new Parliament? Do you sense, Michael, that Canadians are starting to recognize the limits of large-scale deficits and rising public spending?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: I do think Canadians are starting to understand the dangers of huge deficits and ever-increasing amounts of unsustainable debt. I think that’s clear because many Canadians are struggling to pay the bills as a result of the Bank of Canada’s rate hikes. Many of them are facing much higher monthly mortgage bills, much higher lines of credit bills, and many other household bills. I think they understand now the need for us to get our federal finances under control.

I think the focus of the government should be on combating inflation and ensuring that life remains affordable for ordinary families across the land. It’s not something that they’ve been focused on. In fact, their recent budget needs have been quite counterproductive. They have been pouring fiscal fuel on the fire by adding to spending every several weeks. That’s only making the Bank of Canada’s job even more difficult as it tries to combat the rising inflation we’ve been seeing.

SEAN SPEER: Just in parentheses, it comes back to our early conversation by which, as the Government announces new and new incremental spending seemingly every couple of weeks or every month, it’s even more important for Parliament to be in session and be able to ask tough questions and hold the Government accountable for its ongoing fiscal profligacy.

Finally, I’d be remiss, Michael, if I didn’t ask you about the Official Opposition itself. What do you think the new leader and the rest of the team ought to be focused on, and where is their room to make a positive contribution to the policy agenda?

MP MICHAEL CHONG: I think the new leader and the party caucus needs to be focused on ensuring life is affordable for Canadians. That means combating inflation. The Bank of Canada is trying to do its job on the monetary side of the equation. Now, Parliament and the Government need to do our job on our side of the equation, which is to ensure that the spending that the Government is doing each and every day isn’t pouring fuel on the fires of inflation.

We will be holding the Government straight to the fire on announcements they’ve been making that are only further contributing to the spiraling cost of everyday goods and services. That will be our focus as we enter the fall sitting.

SEAN SPEER: MP Michael Chong, this has been a fascinating conversation. Good luck with your efforts to bring in-person sitting back to Parliament. I appreciate you joining me today for Hub Dialogues.

MP MICHAEL CHONG: Great to be here.