Eight months into the pandemic, the Senate is now preparing a plan to meet and vote virtually as COVID-19 cases continue to spike and provincial restrictions make travel difficult for some members of the Red Chamber.
While the House of Commons has had a hybrid model in place for months — MPs can be present in the chamber or join virtually through a secure Zoom connection — the Senate has been essentially inoperative, even as senators themselves continue to collect their full pay.
As of September, MPs have the option of voting virtually. In the upper house, senators must be physically present to cast votes on bills like the multi-billion-dollar C-4 recovery act that cleared third reading today.
Since March, the chamber has met only 14 times — hastily arranged sittings to quickly pass the government’s COVID-19 relief measures — and only a small number of senators have been present in the chamber at any one time.
One of the Senate’s primary constitutional functions is to represent and defend regional interests. But because of the Atlantic bubble, senators from the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador have been largely absent. Ontario and Quebec senators have been shouldering most of the chamber duties.
The Senate’s committees — where much of the chamber’s “sober second thought” function is carried out — also have been largely dormant, while MPs have pushed ahead with their own committee meetings using virtual options.
In fact, most Senate committees still haven’t been reconstituted in the year since the October 2019 federal election.
The Senate’s internal economy committee, which deals with budget and administration, has met a handful of times to deal with financial compensation for victims of former senator Don Meredith’s harassment and sexual harassment, among other matters. Two other committees — social affairs and national finance — have met on occasion to discuss COVID-19-related matters.
Progressive Sen. Pierre Dalphond, a former judge, said the Senate’s failure to pursue virtual options has robbed senators of the chance to act as a check on government as billions of dollars flow out of the federal treasury.
“This chamber has sat for only 128 hours over 32 days since June 2019. During the same period, the House of Commons has sat for 344 hours over 50 days. At the committee level, the difference is even more striking,” he said.
“Our inability to reach consensus on ways to carry out our functions has transformed us, momentarily, I hope … into a rubber-stamp body. We need hybrid sittings as a step to resume our regular functions with full participation of all senators.”
Dalphond said it’s unacceptable that the Senate was recalled to debate and vote on a $51-billion aid package in just two days’ time.
Alberta Sen. Scott Tannas is the leader of the Canadian Senators Group, a caucus largely composed of former Conservative and right-leaning senators. He said this week it was “unacceptable” for the Senate to be sidelined for so long during a national crisis.
“Unlike the House of Commons, the Senate of Canada is still not meeting on a regular basis, nor has it taken measures to allow hybrid sittings,” Tannas said.
“The House of Commons [has] demonstrated how quickly and effectively hybrid meetings can be done, and our group suggests that there must not be further delays in resolving the current situation in the Senate.”
The Trudeau government’s representative in the upper house, Quebec Sen. Marc Gold, introduced a motion Friday to stand up a virtual, hybrid model so that the upper house can continue its work.
“The brutal reality of this pandemic is that it has made it risky, and in some cases virtually impossible, for senators from this very large country to be here and participate and do their constitutional duty,” he told CBC News.
Gold said the Senate administration is now working to make hybrid sittings “operational as soon as possible this fall.” He said there is “overwhelming support” from all sides to make this happen in short order, although some Conservative senators have voiced concerns.
He said packing the chamber with more people would be irresponsible and the chamber’s work must “adjust and adapt to the hybrid reality.”
“We have 142 new cases in Ottawa today. My goodness,” Gold said. “The public health system is in crisis. The pandemic has made it imperative, not only for the Senate but for all institutions, to figure out ways to function properly during these extraordinary times.”
Asked if he thought it was appropriate for the Senate to meet so infrequently, Gold said the upper house has done its best to pass government legislation under constrained timelines.
He said it hasn’t been possible for senators to meet online up to this point.
“There are technical issues that are, quite frankly, not under our control as senators,” he said. “To meld our systems with the technological platforms we’ll need to use, while still respecting the rights and privileges of senators to participate fully, is taking time. We’re getting there.”
Under the proposed Gold plan, which won’t be voted on until senators return at the end of October, hybrid sittings would be considered normal proceedings of the Senate and senators could gather in the chamber or online. The Senate will be able to sit Monday to Friday, 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET.
The plan says that the composition of the hybrid chamber would maintain the proportional sizes of the various Senate groups and caucuses.
Senators would have to join debates using a desktop or laptop computer, with headphones with an integrated microphone. They also would have to be “broadcasting their image when speaking,” says the plan.
Senators would be able to vote on a motion or a bill from their home or office, using cards. A senator joining the debate online could hold up a “yea” or “nay” card when called on to vote.
A spokesperson for Senate Speaker George Furey said the administration has “dedicated substantial resources” to implementing a hybrid system to get senators back to work. “However, the exact date of operationality has not yet been determined,” the spokesperson said.
The Conservatives’ Senate leader, Sen. Don Plett, said Friday he’s “not a big fan of hybrid sittings.”
He said Gold’s proposed system could create two classes of senators, with those present in the chamber carrying more of the weight than those at home.
“Schools are back, businesses are asked to go back to work, the prime minister wants everyone to work but Parliament, and I have a problem with that,” Plett told CBC News.
Plett said the chamber can safely fit as many as 84 senators (there are 95 sitting senators with 10 vacancies) and still maintain physical distancing.
“I do believe we should be looking at that rather than hybrid, yes I do,” he said. “We are doing Zoom calls and on so many meetings we are having nothing but technical issues. We’re disconnected.”
Plett added, however, that he wouldn’t stand in the way of some sort of hybrid arrangement that would allow the Senate to meet more often.
He said he wants to see more committees working so that senators can hear from cabinet ministers pushing billion-dollar bills.
As it is now, he said, senators have been afforded few opportunities to question a government pandemic response that has been beset with missteps and failed programs.
“I think it’s shameful that we haven’t had more government legislation,” Plett said. “We’ve put the government on notice that, if they want legislation passed, we need our committees up and running because we’ve had enough.
“We should have sat here for more hours but those hours should have been spent dealing with government legislation, without a doubt. It’s disrespectful to the senators and we aren’t going to stand for it any longer.”