Insight: Digital Democracy in the Age of Pandemic

Ensight’s Tyler Downey’s analysis of the recent report by the Procedure and House Affairs Committee and what it means for democracy

Soon, Canada’s Parliament will boldly go where no Parliament has gone before – online. For weeks, experts on Parliamentary procedure and digital communications have been working with the House of Commons administration to determine what changes need to be made to the House’s Standing Orders to ensure that Parliamentary business can continue virtually. Both the Speaker of the House Anthony Rota, as head of the House administration, and the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) have issued reports on the readiness of the Commons administration to move either partially or fully online.

The scope of the logistics of the move are overwhelming, and both PROC and the Speaker have spoken about the technical issues that may arise. The report drafted by PROC recommends a temporary hybrid Parliament, with some members attending in-person and others virtually, before moving to a fully virtual platform. MPs and witnesses who spoke during committee proceedings were concerned about preserving the parliamentary privileges MPs enjoy while sitting in the House, the translation of proceedings into both official languages, the feasibility of electronic methods for special points of order in session, the availability of broadband internet and equipment for MPs in rural and remote areas, and, of course, digital security to keep the whole system safe. The Speaker, for his part, has said the House is now prepared to begin virtual sittings, but highlighted some ongoing concerns he has, including how to determine an MP’s presence for the purpose of quorum, and the need for electronic systems for moving motions and tabling documents. Both PROC and the Speaker have shown deep concern for the security of voting electronically, highlighting the importance of digital security to preserve the legitimacy of Parliamentary votes.

Now that the Speaker has declared virtual Parliament ready, it is unclear if there will need to be a stop along the way into a hybrid Parliament model. Parliamentary parties have been locked in negotiations since last week to determine the way forward for Parliament. Both the NDP and Conservative leaders have indicated that a hybrid model may be their preferred choice, and the Prime Minister has indicated he is willing to consider it, although his preference is to extend the current thrice weekly sittings of the COVI committee to four per week. There seems to be little talk about moving to a fully virtual Parliament, despite the recommendation from committee that a hybrid Parliament is no substitute for real democracy with all members participating equally and must be replaced with fully virtual sittings as soon as possible.

All told, this move to virtual proceedings could have significant impacts on Canadian democracy in the future. Drafting a separate set of Standing Orders that can be put into practice by Parliamentary vote opens the door to possible permanent changes to Parliament, if MPs decide sitting virtually, hybrid or fully, from time to time is beneficial. Allowing MPs to vote electronically, securely, and by distance could be the greatest change to the way Parliament functions and could result in MPs taking extended time in their constituencies and voting by distance on crucial votes. If MPs can vote, debate, and otherwise fully participate in Parliament from the comfort of their homes, their lack of presence in Ottawa could change the way political professionals do business, whether they’re lobbyists, political staffers, communications professionals, or constituency staff. Whether these changes will be for the best, or the worst, and what they will look like, only time will tell.