Opinion: Civility reigns in virtual Parliament

In cyberspace, no one can hear you heckle.

It turns out that the biggest difference between a virtual Parliament and the real one — judging by its inaugural session earlier this week — is that MPs aren’t constantly being told to shut up.

Instead, Commons Speaker Anthony Rota spent a lot of his time coaxing Canada’s elected representatives in the art of making themselves heard from their remote locations. The world truly has turned upside down when politicians need to be told to speak up.

“Your mute is on,” Rota gently chided MPs, or “I’m sorry, we can’t hear you.”

At a couple of points, Rota even interjected with friendly advice on how MPs could obtain headsets and microphones from their “IT ambassadors.” He compared it to masks as the vital new accessories of Canada in the midst of a pandemic.

COVID-19 has been known to take away people’s ability to smell. When the virus forces democracy online, it appears that hearing is the main sense affected.

But still, MPs muddled through, and these online sessions are bound to improve with practice over the next month or so, every Tuesday and Thursday. “Nobody’s perfect, but we’re working on perfection,” Rota said when it was all over.

In all, it was a pleasant change from the usual noisy spectacle of question period in the Commons, with an accompanying, upward rise in tone and substance as well.

Opposition MPs were genuinely looking for answers about pandemic relief and recovery, and government ministers, for the most part, were trying to oblige.

Nate Erskine-Smith, the MP for Toronto’s Beaches-East York, is someone who takes the Commons seriously, and is not afraid to break Liberal party ranks when he votes. He pronounced this experiment a success.

“Some minor technical challenges, but overall, the format has led to more thoughtful questions and answers than most QPs I’ve seen,” Erskine-Smith said on Twitter.

Not all agreed. Kyle Seeback, the Conservative MP from Dufferin-Caledon, couldn’t participate, and not for lack of trying: “As historic as the first virtual Parliament is, I must point out I could not participate as my internet connection isn’t good enough,” Seeback lamented on Twitter.

The virtual session stretched out to a little less than three hours — not exactly riveting viewing, but earnest nonetheless.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer asked some pointed, but relevant questions of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about Canada’s testing capacity for the COVID-19 virus and how the government had handled early reports of the breakout of the disease in China.

Trudeau’s answers could be roughly summed up as “doing the best we can.”

In virtual Parliament, neither leader was surrounded with clapping or catcalling MPs, so the exchange was civil.

In fact, the only MP to be threatened with the “mute” button was Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who has been spending the pandemic with her American husband and family in Oklahoma.

Here was a bit of history in the making, too: Rempel Garner appears to be the first Canadian member of Parliament to participate in the Commons from another country.

Appearing against a rugged stone fireplace adorned with a tiny Canadian flag, Rempel treated the virtual sitting much as she does committee meetings — online or in person — and repeatedly interrupted Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains as he tried to answer her question about Canada’s stockpile of masks.

Rota warned Rempel Garner and other MPs that he did have a button at his disposal to render them silent, but that he didn’t want to use it. He also had to remind MPs that they still had to address each other through the Speaker, as is Commons practice.

MPs have been preparing for the first virtual Parliament for about a week or so now, with the Commons’ tech people scouting out their homes for bandwidth capacity and the proper site to locate camera shots.

As with other Canadians getting a crash course in video conferencing during this pandemic, the MPs have clearly been giving some thought to their background scenes.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet had a large Quebec flag draped in a window, just beside a dangling dreamcatcher, fittingly.

Many ministers and MPs opted for the now-standard bookcase and office setting — Trudeau and Scheer’s chosen background.

Flags, large and small, were everywhere.

Bains’ background art was probably the most visually arresting — a framed, overhead picture of a crowd wearing multicoloured turbans, complementing the bright pink one on the minister’s own head.

A hundred years from now, future generations of Canadians may look back on this first parliamentary foray into cyberspace as a quaint relic of early video-conferencing technology.

It wasn’t easy to watch — or for MPs to hear themselves talking.

But on that score, that’s not that different from any other day in the Commons.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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