Many institutions will be changed, maybe even for the better, when the pandemic is over.
The Canadian House of Commons, it seems, won’t be one of them.
If the Commons was the place where we do democracy in this country, its endurance would be a bright light in what are dark days this month for so many Canadians.
But the House of Commons is proving itself yet again as the place where hard-core politics gets done, even when the rest of the country is functioning as a shadow of its normal self.
Democracy is definitely an essential service. So is democratic accountability. Politics, sorry to say it, is not — especially with the country reeling Monday from Canada’s largest mass shooting, tragically, simultaneously with a public-health crisis.
Questions are necessary. Question period is not.
It would take too long to explain how democracy, accountability and politics became unravelled in our political culture, long before Canada went into national lockdown.
But the latest proof of that unravelling has been the past few days of protracted argument over how the Commons should convene in the midst of a pandemic.
To be clear: No one was arguing against the idea that government should be accountable to the opposition, most especially when the state is intervening in the lives of Canadian citizens to an unprecedented and expensive degree.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government should not be granted extraordinary powers simply because we’re living in extraordinary times.
But how that accountability should take place managed to turn into yet another polarized debate between the party members that Canada put in those Commons seats only six months ago. Should they meet virtually or in person? How many times a week? What form should question period take? Does it matter?
Coincidentally — or maybe not — the parties split along the same lines that they did in normal times about climate change: Liberals, New Democrats, the Bloc Quebecois and the Greens on one side, the Conservatives on the other.
Four parties agreed on more virtual get-togethers, while the Conservatives were hanging tough for more in-person sessions, with a skeleton crew of MPs present in Ottawa.
“Conservatives continue to believe that frequent accountability sessions in Parliament get better results for Canadians,” Leader Andrew Scheer said on Monday.
“We have repeatedly demonstrated how debate, discussion and opportunities to question the prime minister and his other ministers improve government programs and policies.”
Scheer has a point. It is true that opposition parties have done some worthy work on improving pandemic-relief legislation in the past month, including putting a reasonable time limit on the government’s authority to spend money.
What Scheer didn’t say, however, was that none of that happened because of an “accountability” session in the chamber and accompanying political theatrics.
The back-and-forth between political parties on pandemic relief has been happening over the phone, or in small private meetings on Parliament Hill, far away from the cameras.
The Greens’ leader in the Commons, Elizabeth May, described how it worked when the House met briefly in a rare Saturday session a couple of weeks ago.
She noted that she and Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre had become particularly adept at using the dial-in technology to press the government and public servants on details.
“We have those daily question-and-answer sessions,” May said. “I know that not all of us get our questions in every single day. Some of us do well.”
This sounds an awful lot like democracy and accountability — all managed without theatrics and tiresome potshots.
It’s become common to describe partisans yelling past each other as “lively debate” — the noise and the nastiness shrugged off as the price of democracy.
There’s a problem, though, of confusing the theatre of politics with the harder work of democracy, which is finding a middle ground amid disparate, polarized positions.
The mere expression of differences isn’t debate; it’s just plain old shouting if it leads nowhere.
The optimists in this country are looking for ways in which this pandemic and national lockdown will teach us how to live better when we return to our previous lives: from improvements in how we treat our elderly or value our neighbourhood businesses, to the benefits of doing work online or cooking at home.
No such discussion of better ways appears to be going on in the House of Commons.
As long as anyone is talking about question period as an essential service, with the parties locked in their same old ways, we can assume that we’re going to be stuck with polarized politics long after the pandemic is over.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.