Why Can’t Our Boomer Parliament Figure Out Zoom?

Canadians could go bankrupt waiting for politicians, who are struggling to figure out how to work amid physical distancing, to vote on new measures to help during the coronavirus pandemic.
April 11, 2020, 10:00am
Canada's empty House of Commons. Photo via The Canadian Press

Throwing social distancing to the wind, a cohort of politicians are descending upon Ottawa today so that the federal government can roll out an expansive wage subsidy, designed to keep people in the job while the economy is at a stand-still.

Despite promises from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to set up a “virtual Parliament,” the administration of the House of Commons is still fumbling with the technology necessary to let Members of Parliament and Senators join their respective bodies from the comfort of their own homes.

"The administration has been investigating possible technological solutions and procedural options,” House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota wrote in a letter from earlier this month. But Rota said that a digital Parliament would not be online until, realistically, the end of April.

While the House of Commons works hard to invent new, previously unimagined, technology that would somehow allow people to communicate via digital video chat, there is still plenty of work to do.

Billions of dollars in economic aid can’t get out the door without a sign-off from Parliament — meaning Canadians could literally go bankrupt if our politicians can’t vote on some of these measures. If the federal government invokes its expansive emergency powers, it also needs Parliament to sign off. And, perhaps least of all, MPs just want to get to work, planning for what comes next, once our long national lockdown is over.

In March, members of the House and Senate had to schlep back to Ottawa to approve a massive economic aid package—most of the skeleton crew came from nearby ridings, but a government jet had to be dispatched to pick Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Tory Senate Leader Don Plett.

That rushed sitting turned into an all-night cluster-whoopsie, as it turned out the Liberals had tried to give themselves nearly limitless power to spend and tax, which led to opposition protests. The sides reached an early-morning compromise on a pared-down spending bill to keep people from going bankrupt during the crisis.

But now politicians need to head back, again, to approve an emergency wage subsidy to keep people from being laid off, as businesses continue to sit, shuttered.

It’s why there is growing demand to move online, both to ensure that aid packages like these can be rolled out quickly, and to actually let politicians—especially those in the opposition—do their jobs.

“There are other lenses we should be looking at this from,” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel said. “That’s why we have, for example, a committee on Indigenous affairs.” Rempel is the co-chair of the committee on Industry, Science and Technology, and wants her committee holding digital meetings. Given platforms like Google and Apple are now being brought in to do contract tracing of those with COVID-19, she says, “we have to start talking about data privacy and consent...and we shouldn’t be doing it after the fact.”

But, for whatever reason, the democracy 2.0 idea doesn’t seem to be catching fire.

Scheer himself is cool to a sort of _Habbo Hotel_-style Parliament.

“We have already demonstrated that a small number of MPs, representing the various parties, can follow public health directives while we fulfill our parliamentary duties,” he said in a statement.

That isn’t, strictly speaking, true. The public health advice has been to, if possible, stay inside and work from home. Travelling across the country—as Scheer has done, as well as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and others—is not following those directives.

Scheer did add that “virtual meetings are an interesting possibility that can be used in addition to in-person meetings to ensure broader participation of MPs.”

That hasn’t gone over terribly well inside his own party, with members of his caucus pushing him to support a digital Parliament, so that far-flung MPs can have their voices heard—and pitch a hand in studying constructive solutions to how to respond to the virus.

Dan Albas, a Conservative MP for British Columbia who came back to Ottawa to man the House, said that there have been some disagreements in his caucus—politicians are, by nature, “type A personalities” who want to do their job, he says. But he adds that MPs are still working in their ridings, even if they’re not in Parliament.

Albas himself helped connect one importer in his riding with the right people in Ottawa to help bring in shipments of personal protective equipment.

He says there is definitely a benefit to remote meetings, even if it means it will take another month. The threat of foreign intelligence agencies breaking into the digital Parliamentary meeting to muck around is worth being skeptical, Albas adds.

The NDP are a bit more keen on _The Jetsons_-style E-meetings.

“What is the hold up?” NDP House Leader Peter Julian said. “That’s a very good question.”

He and his party want some forum where MPs can question Trudeau or his ministers—right now, they have no avenue to do so.

Julian and I began rattling off all the other countries that have either set up digital parliamentary sittings already, or are nearly there: Spain, the European Union, the Maldives, and the United Kingdom, for starters.

“The Maldives...should not be ahead of Canada on this front,” Julian said.

There is nothing in the rules that strictly forbid moving Parliament online. While there is a constitutional requirement that the House have quorum, there is nothing in there which mandates that the elected representatives be physically present as opposed to, say, on the phone or Skype. They could have Parliament over Grindr group chat, if they really wanted.

House Leader Pablo Rodriguez’s office confirmed that moving Parliament to Zoom would be, in theory, be a matter of changing the standing orders—the rules that govern the House of Commons, which can be amended by a majority vote.

A big part of the reason our politicians won’t be joining via their own laptops—forgetting to mute their line, having their dog barking in the background, clipping their nails as they debate bills—appears to be the House of Commons’ inability to figure out the technology.

A spokesperson for the house leader confirmed they are looking at those changes, but there are currently no plans to tinker with the standing orders when they meet Saturday. The House of Commons is slated to reconvene on April 20, as well, though it’s unclear if that will happen.

Even if the two chambers of Parliament can’t get online, two committees have managed to move to the World Wide Web, and it will slowly expand.

The finance committee has been meeting, with members calling in through the government teleconferencing system, although it’s been a catastrophe. Whole sections of the meeting are inaudible. The hearing had the distinct vibe of trying to make a phone call from a broken payphone outside a strip mall in 1993.

“1993, I think, is being generous,” Julian told me when I used that metaphor on him.

But there are signs of hope. When the health committee met earlier this week, all the committee members and the witnesses joined through video chat—and it went pretty well. (The House of Commons hasn’t said which service they used, except that it is not one of the services owned by the Government of Canada.)

Those two committees are the only ones, thus far, which have been given permission to meet, but more are to come. The Speaker of the House of Commons wrote in his letter to the party house leaders that they hope to bring online three committees per day, starting next week. It will still require the House to greenlight those hearings, but as one Liberal MP acknowledged in a private email to a Liberal committee chair, “it will be very difficult to refuse” the request, should enough MPs push for it.

Which brings us to the core problem at hand: The federal government’s telecommunications platforms are woefully out of date.

The government teleconferencing service is a conference call system that dates back at least a decade, and is notorious for crackly lines, delays, sudden hang-ups, and painful hold music.

That system is already creaking under the strain. Shared Services, which manages Ottawa’s antiquated technology, is begging public servants working from home to avoid the system unless necessary.

The federal government does have its own video conferencing platform—built around Cisco’s WebEx platform—and it’s not clear why that won’t fly here.

Julian says the finance committee plans to move online, but rather than asking him to use his own laptop, the House administration is shipping him audio-visual equipment.

If the problem is with Ottawa’s Windows XP vintage tech, many have suggested a pretty simple solution: Just use Zoom.

The UK Parliament will be using Zoom by mid-April, as Boris Johnson’s government has already moved to the video chat app for its cabinet meetings.

Security has been a concern, with security group the Citizen Lab warning that there are serious gaps in the platform’s security. Which would be a problem, if there were anything secret or classified said in the Parliamentary sittings—but the meetings are, by definition, public record. If Chinese spies broke into the digital sitting, they would be awfully bored.

Rempel says she’s worried that, without having politicians in Parliament, their hands are tied. “With the House not sitting, we don’t have a venue to force this,” she says.

The speaker’s office, for their part, acknowledged in their letter that “adapting our processes to existing technology seems to be a more direct route,” rather than trying to build some sort of new platform. They note that, whatever they use, there would need to be a way to do simultaneous translation in English and French.

Getting a solution place sooner rather than later is pretty pressing. While Parliament has, thus far, only needed to convene to quickly debate and approve aid packages, that may change. If Ottawa decides to invoke the Emergencies Act, which gives the federal government expansive and nearly-authoritarian power to manage a crisis, it will need an approval vote from the House of Commons within a week.

The Emergencies Act has never been used. Its predecessor was deployed by Trudeau’s father, during the October Crisis, to functionally suspend the civil liberties of the entire country and dispatch soldiers to police the streets of Montreal. If it comes to a vote, MPs are going to want to have a say on it.

To date, nobody seems to have a plan for what happens if 338 politicians start gunning towards Ottawa, _Mad Max: Fury Road-_style, in the midst of a pandemic.

If you don’t care about this at all, can I suggest one compelling reason to get onboard?

You’ll get to see the inside of our elected representative homes. Who has a chair full of dirty laundry? Who owns books? Who has adorable pets who are not concerned with the machinations of Parliament?

It’s all possible.

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