OTTAWA — A typical day on Parliament Hill includes debates on justice legislation, a release of regulations around environmental practices, and committee hearings on telecom rates.
But it’s the daily COVID-19 press conference that monopolizes the attention in newspapers and the nightly news.
Although the pandemic has helped politicians find new ways to connect with constituents, Manitoba MPs say it’s harder to for them to press their issues. With an election widely expected later this year, parties are trying to find ways to get voters’ attention.
"The isolation created by COVID has, in my opinion, undermined our democratic process," said Conservative MP James Bezan, who has represented Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman since 2004.
The weekly caucus meeting used to involve reading the room, to see how fellow MPs feel about the party’s policies, and whether an issue in one province is showing up elsewhere.
Many MPs say they miss chatting on the sidelines with colleagues from other parties, from figuring out which backbenchers would support looming legislation, to intervening at the highest levels of government.
"It’s the ability to hand-deliver a letter from a constituent to a minister on a specific issue or a problem, and get that addressed in an immediate manner," Bezan said.
"This work is just as important as the work we do on camera, and now on the Zoom camera. And that has been completely robbed from us as parliamentarians."
But MPs have kept busy.
Winnipeg South Liberal MP Terry Duguid says he’s a lot more likely to meet with a constituent virtually now, compared with the chances of a sitdown in Winnipeg or a call from Ottawa.
He hears constituents’ concerns about policy issues, and works out the logistics of an immigration file out of his Whyte Ridge home.
"We have been busier than ever. Things do take longer, because you don’t have people in the office talking to one another and bringing a piece of paper down the hall," Duguid said.
Yet the shift to virtual work has meant the ability to beam in high-profile guests for constituency events.
"You can get a minister, or even a prominent figure like the Prime Minister; they’re more available."
In a two-week stretch this spring, Duguid held meetings or press conferences about women in farming, electric vehicles, Manitoba nursing union negotiations, grants for fishermen and the federal role in managing floods and droughts.
What he doesn’t mention is that barely any of those events got media attention.
"It’s hard to break through on the day-to-day, or even week-to-week and month-to-month," he admits.
"Our community and our media have rightfully been focused on COVID, and it is the central thrust of all we do— try to get people through it."
Announcements that the party’s meticulously planned have fallen flat.
Last July, Duguid spoke about funding to improve water quality in Lake Winnipeg at the Forks, with a deliberate image of the two rivers merging.
On Facebook, it was hard to tell where the announcement was, or that the water was even moving.
"It’s just not the same; it doesn’t have the resonance that captures the attention of an audience or the media," Duguid said.
Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Leah Gazan is less concerned, arguing staying in her riding has helped her keep in touch with the needs of her constituents.
"This past couple weeks I’ve actually been out delivering donations in the hot snap. I (normally) would have been in Ottawa during quite an extended stint. It was so nice to be out, going to Main Street Project, and the West End Bear Clan patrol," she said.
MPs appear both virtually and in the Commons chamber, and a smartphone voting app that launched this spring allows them to tap a screen to vote, instead of having to speak their vote into a webcam, or shuffle across the precinct and into the Commons.
"Some of the changes that could potentially in the future allow us to be within our own ridings more, and at the beck and call of the people who elect us, and that’s important."
However, Bezan argues keeping MPs in their ridings has lessened their power to drive issues on the national scene that aren’t about vaccines and variants.
The military’s pervasive sexual harassment problem has led to multiple investigations and suspensions. Experts have warned that the tumult undermines Canada’s national security. But what would normally be a months-long scandal has instead percolated into the new in short bursts.
"There’s no question this has been in the media, but it’s definitely not the top thing people try to get information on," Bezan said.
"Everyone’s preoccupied with COVID," said Bezan, including constituents.
MPs have held virtual events for their ridings, from scheduled sessions on a specific topic, to impromptu livestream Q&As.
But Bezan said it’s a poor replacement for glad-handing at the local barbecue, which he says is a much better barometer for public sentiment.
"You don’t get the same feedback and get the same grassroots input into policies and how things are going," he said.
That also poses a challenge for building up a war chest.
An election is widely expected to take place this fall, and Canada’s political system is deliberately designed to rely on funding generated by a large amount of smaller donations.
"The party puts responsibility on us, particularly sitting MPs, to raise their own funds. It’s been awkward in a number of respects," said Duguid.
Instead of approaching anyone who attended a rally in the last campaign, he’s contacting people who have already donated more than once. "It just hasn’t been appropriate to do fundraising in this kind of environment, when people are struggling," he said.
MPs have turned to Christmas turkey sales and online Zoom hangouts to drum up cash, but it’s not as enticing as a pricey dinner in a nice ballroom with influential local guests.
If an election is called before Canadians can gather in large groups, parties have crafted interim plans to focus on phone outreach. Yet Bezan said that’s getting harder as more people switch to mobile phones that aren’t registered to any specific riding.
Gazan, a rookie MP elected October 2019, feels she’s been able to keep up a profile by mixing virtual interventions in Parliament with grassroots work in the city.
Duguid, who has held his riding since 2015, says he plans to take in every festival and barbecue possible once it’s safe to do so in Manitoba, whether or not that’s during an election.
"My waistline has maybe been trimmed, but you miss the people."