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Tories want Parliament declared 'essential service,' regular House sittings

Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer arrives for a news conference Tuesday May 19, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer arrives for a news conference Tuesday May 19, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer called Friday for Parliament to be declared an essential service so a reduced number of MPs can resume their House of Commons duties amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The Conservatives are proposing a motion to do that because Scheer said the daily briefings by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from his home are not good enough to hold the government accountable.

MPs need to be able to ask questions on behalf of their constituents across the country, Scheer said.

The Liberals, he said, have announced hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending to mitigate the damage caused by the pandemic-related shutdown, but have provided no formal financial update. Canadians need to know how the government is spending their money, he added.

"The government should not be allowed to hide the information from Canadians or to pick and choose which questions they want to answer and when," said Scheer.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer arrives to hold a press conference on Parliament Hill amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, May 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer arrives to hold a press conference on Parliament Hill amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, May 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

"This is not a partisan issue. This is about whether or not a country like Canada can have a functional Parliament during a crisis."

Scheer proposed that 50 MPs should be allowed in the House for "normal" sittings, starting Monday, to conform to public health requirements on physical distancing. He said 18 of them should be Conservatives, proportionate to his party's standings in the full 338-member chamber.

He said the number of support staff in the West Block of Parliament Hill could be reduced as well. Scheer also said he wears a mask while on the Hill, but he took it off for his Friday press conference. Scheer said the party whips can decide how many MPs can safely meet to debate and vote on legislation while respecting physical distancing.

He said all Commons committees need to resume regular hearings via video as part of a plan to restore a "normal parliamentary business cycle."

Currently, the Commons has turned into a special COVID-19 committee, meeting three times a week, twice virtually and once in person.

Trudeau said he wants to see a functioning Parliament, and is open to a "hybrid" model where some MPs could participate via videoconferencing. He said the parties are negotiating a way forward.

"We want what Canadians want, to make sure that there is a functioning Parliament that will ensure that questions and preoccupations from across the country get heard," Trudeau said Friday.

MPs could debate non-pandemic matters, but he said that would remain the government's focus.

"All parties are united in wanting to ensure that we continue — as we have been — to demonstrate that our democracy is strong, and our institutions are functioning not just despite the crisis but because of the crisis."

The consistent thread among opposition parties is a demand for more face time with the government — even if masked —as they negotiate Parliament's return.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said Friday it wasn't for him to "comment in terms of how the House will function in terms of the logistics of how many people might be sitting."

He said he gives the same advice to MPs as he does the general public: observe the two-metre physical distancing rule between people and wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer.

"If you feel off, if you feel sick don't come to work that day," Njoo added.

"With those three basic principles in place, we'll leave it to the parliamentarians' logisticians to figure out the best way to make Parliament function."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2020.

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