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Tories reject virtual Commons sittings setting stage for resumption of Parliament

FILE - Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer delivers remarks to caucus colleagues during the Conservative caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA – Barring a last-minute deal, the stage appeared set for members of Parliament to return to the House of Commons on Monday after the Conservatives rejected a Liberal government proposal to hold one in-person session and up to two virtual sessions per week.

The Liberals announced Sunday that they had reached tentative agreement with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois following a series of closed-door negotiations as federal parties sought ways to increase parliamentary oversight during the COVID-19 crisis.

The plan would have seen 32 MPs meet in the House of Commons each Wednesday for in-person sessions starting this week. One 90-minute virtual session would then be added the following week for MPs to ask questions of the government and ramp up to two per week thereafter.

But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer dismissed the proposal during a news conference on Parliament Hill, suggesting there remained many unanswered questions about holding a virtual sitting of the House of Commons and insisting on three in-person sittings per week.

“We believe we have a reasonable proposal on the table,” he said. “All parties must come together to ensure Parliament continues to function during the difficult days ahead. Canadians’ lives and livelihoods literally depend on the government getting the response to the pandemic right.”

Scheer went on to list a number of questions he wanted the government to answer, including why many health-care workers don’t have proper protective equipment, whether the emergency benefits rolled out are helping everyone, and Ottawa’s plan for re-opening the economy.

“The best place for our elected representatives to get answers to these questions is in the House of Commons in Ottawa.”

Hours earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that resuming parliamentary sittings at a time when health experts are urging Canadians to limit their movement and work from home as much as possible to prevent the pandemic from spreading would be “irresponsible.”

The government has suggested that unless an agreement is reached, the House of Commons will resume business as usual Monday with all 338 MPs along with their staff along with Parliament Hill clerks, interpreters, security and cleaners, returning to work in Ottawa.

“We have proposed – and it’s been largely accepted by the other opposition parties – that we should have accountability measures, we should have Parliament that functions,” Trudeau said during his daily news conference outside his residence in Ottawa.

“But it has to be done in a responsible way, and right now the Conservatives are not taking a responsible approach.”

He went on to defend the plan to hold virtual sittings, saying the House of Commons administration was not ready to conduct such a session this week, “but we are very open to increasing them over the subsequent weeks.”

The House of Commons has already moved some business online with two parliamentary committees conducting hearings by video conference. The British Parliament is also poised to adopt a hybrid approach in wich some MPs will grill ministers in person while others participate online.

Scheer, however, raised concerns about connectivity issues for MPs in rural or remote parts of Canada as well as the application of certain parliamentary rules such as those that protect MPs from defamation and libel for what they say in the House.

The Conservative leader went on to accuse the Liberals of misleading Canadians to put pressure on Opposition parties by noting that only 20 MPs need to be in the House for a sitting.

Except for two single-day sittings to pass emergency aid bills, Parliament has been adjourned since mid-March. Those two sessions were held with a limited number of Parliament Hill staff, which Scheer said could be easily replicated to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Translators, security personnel and other staff are required for the daily briefings by government ministers and public-health officials on Parliament Hill, he added.

“There are millions of Canadians who are providing services to their fellow citizens in this time of crisis,” Scheer said. “We believe that Parliament is an essential service and that we will get Canadians through this crisis in a better way if Parliament is allowed to do its job.”

Despite the apparent impasse, NDP House Leader Peter Julian remained hopeful that a deal could be reached. While he acknowledged that some work around the rules on virtual sittings needed to be ironed out, “this is a base and after that, we just approve improvements to that.”

The political wrangling in Ottawa came as provincial health authorities reported at least 113 more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the national total to 1,583.

Yet while Ontario and Quebec also reported hundreds more positive tests, bringing the national total to more than 34,800, New Brunswick as well as Newfoundland and Labrador reported no new cases.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health, said the slow growth in case numbers was encouraging, but it’s too early to let up on preventive efforts.