The past few weeks have brought bewildering changes to our society, as governments worldwide seek to slow the spread of the coronavirus and mitigate its health, social, and economic impacts. The Canadian response has already generated the largest ever expansion in government activity and spending during peacetime.
We are all learning to muddle through and keep working despite these changes—and that includes our elected Members of Parliament, who together face an enormous disruption to their usual methods of engaging with citizens, reviewing legislation, and scrutinizing the government.
While adaptation is required in these exceptional times, democratic institutions should nevertheless continue to uphold their fundamental functions of scrutiny, transparency, and representation. Recognizing the increased potential for abuses of democracy, Samara Centre researchers are monitoring international and Canadian legislative bodies to see how they fare under the strain of COVID-19.
On March 13, Canada’s Parliament bent its own rules to enable emergency government spending by instantly passing Bill C-12. Last week, when Parliament reconvened briefly to pass the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act (Bill C-13), Canadians saw their democratic institutions stretched to the limit.
It is the Samara Centre’s analysis that, while there were some missteps and lessons learned, Canada’s parliamentary institutions did not buckle under the pressure.
Click here to read a detailed analysis of Parliament’s actions on March 13 and March 24 to 25.
What our democracy got right
The Opposition opposed:
- Pressure from Opposition MPs led to compromises for both C-12 and C-13 that balance the Government’s need for flexibility in its response to COVID-19 with oversight and transparency.
Political parties cooperated in good faith:
- While tempers flared, none of the parties walked away from the process or used this time for political gamesmanship.
Innovations were embraced:
- The discussion resulted in never-before-seen provisions to allow the Standing Committees on Finance and Health to meet via teleconference or videoconference in order to scrutinize the government’s response to the pandemic while Parliament isn’t sitting.
What our democracy got wrong
Government initially went too far in limiting parliamentary oversight:
- The initial draft of Bill C-13 would have given the Government the capacity to tax, borrow, and spend any sums of money it saw fit until the end of 2021.
- Under Opposition pressure, the tax measures were abandoned while the spending powers only last until September and are under much tighter scrutiny.
Oversight measures are complicated and incomplete:
- Rather than placing oversight provisions directly within bills C-12 and C-13, the measures were adopted through separate motions in the House of Commons. This arrangement makes it difficult for even close observers of Parliament to know how oversight of the government’s emergency powers is supposed to work.
- Neither MPs nor Senators have the ability to remove the government’s emergency powers as is the case with those available under the Emergencies Act.
Power was even further concentrated:
- The negotiations for Bills C-12 and C-13 were handled by an elite group of senior MPs from each party. Two-thirds of the MPs at the March 24-25 emergency session were either party leaders, ministers, whips, house leaders, or parliamentary secretaries, while just one Government backbencher was present.
Representation was particularly weak:
- Although limiting travel makes sense during a pandemic, 72% of the MPs and 76% of the Senators who took part in the emergency session of Parliament were from Ontario or Quebec, and no MPs or Senators were present from the territories, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, or Prince Edward Island. This pandemic is playing out differently across the country but we did not have all regions represented in Parliament.
- While women are already underrepresented at Parliament (29% of MPs and 45% of Senators), they made up just 25% of the MPs and 32% of the Senators present for the emergency debate.
Scrutiny was strictly limited:
- The cross-party group of senior MPs who negotiated the COVID-19 response measures in Bills C-12 and C-13 expected all other MPs to support the legislation without seeing or commenting on it.
- Bill C-12 did not even receive first reading before it was passed through all stages, so some MPs who supported the motion passing the bill may not have known its contents.
- Senators were largely excluded from the emergency negotiations for C-13, but were still expected to pass it within hours. They also have no role in ongoing scrutiny of the government while parliament isn’t sitting.
Transparency was abandoned:
- Anyone tuning in to see what could have been one of the most important debates in a generation found a green screen. As soon as the emergency sitting began on March 24, the debate was suspended so that senior MPs from all parties could retreat into a backroom to discuss possible solutions rather than debating and amending Bill C-13 in public.
- By comparison, both Australia’s Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill and the UK’s Coronavirus Bill were amended during their passage through transparent debates.
- While the Senate version was available in a day, the House of Commons’ Hansard record of the important debate on Bill C-13 was only posted online a week after the debate took place.
Lessons learned and suggestions for the future
Plan for the worst:
- While Parliament no doubt has plans for how to handle parliamentary proceedings during a nuclear war, there was no immediate plan in place for how MPs could debate and discuss when they cannot meet physically.
- Parliament must urgently identify ways to ensure that all MPs remain able to effectively represent their constituents and have their voices heard, including through technology-enabled engagement at a distance. We have already seen that the pandemic will impact different parts of the country in different ways. The ability of MPs to share such diverse experiences can help to improve Canada’s response, and should not be sacrificed in the name of efficiency.
Show your work:
- Government should always give the Opposition and Senate sufficient time to scrutinize bills. In the vast majority of cases, debate should extend over several days so that the Opposition can scrutinize the text and consult with concerned citizens. In a situation like this, where time is of the essence, governments should go out of their way to engage all MPs early on, by showing them draft bills ahead of sitting. With both C-12 and C-13, tabling the original versions of the legislation the night before they were debated would have improved scrutiny by both those MPs not part of the negotiations and the general public.
- Debate in public, please. Even if most of the decisions are made behind closed doors, the process of debating out in the open is inherently valuable, and helps Canadians understand context and rationale.