Governor General Julie Payette delivers the most recent throne speech in the Senate chamber in Ottawa, in pre-pandemic times, Dec. 5, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Virtual voting tests underway as House of Commons set to return for throne speech

The House of Commons sat in a modified hybrid form over the summer

Tests of how MPs can vote virtually are underway ahead of the planned return of Parliament Wednesday.

The Liberal minority government is set to deliver a speech from the throne to lay out an updated version of its pandemic response plan, but also how it intends to guide the country forward afterwards.

Doing parliamentary business, however, needs the House of Commons, and how MPs will be able to do their work in the months ahead is a matter of ongoing negotiations between all the parties.

The House of Commons sat in a modified hybrid form over the summer, with some MPs in person and others online, and some committees met.

Most of the meetings in the Commons chamber were of a special committee on COVID-19, which allowed for debate but severely restricted action. When legislation was voted on, it was by a limited number of MPs, so they could stay apart from each other.

But what’s on tap starting Wednesday is a full resumption of the legislature’s operations.

That widens the scope and challenge of having Parliament meet: the sittings will be daily, all committees can be convened, the government must respond to certain timelines to produce documents and, perhaps most crucially, there needs to be a way for members to vote.

Given that the speech from the throne will be followed by a confidence vote, that testing is just beginning on a method for doing so this week is concerning, said NDP MP Rachel Blaney, who worked on the House of Commons committee tasked with coming up with a plan for a pandemic Parliament.

“When you’re rushing at the last minute, it sets the tone,” she said, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the government for not beginning talks on the issue sooner.

Given it is a minority Parliament, protecting and ensuring voting can function flawlessly is crucial, Blaney said, especially if the first test will be the vote on the throne speech.

“We should not be in this situation,” she said. “We could have been testing, having conversations, working things out for weeks.”

While the Opposition Conservatives had been clamouring for a full in-person resumption of Parliament, their hopes were dashed late last week when leader Erin O’Toole tested positive for COVID-19. He remains in isolation with mild symptoms, and can’t be present in the Commons this week.

He will preside virtually, however, over a caucus meeting with his MPs on Tuesday.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yved-François Blanchet has also been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is also in isolation.

How and when both leaders will deliver their responses to the speech is part of negotiations. It’s not written in stone that they must do so on the same day, and while the speech is allocated six days of debate, those days don’t have to be consecutive. So, they could be scheduled in such a way to allow the leaders to appear in person when they’re cleared by public health, and then the vote would take place after.

In the meantime, the business of Parliament can continue.

Leaders’ absences will be one way the impact of the pandemic is affecting the pageantry of the throne speech that kicks things off.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette will still receive a 21-gun salute when she arrives at the Senate building — itself a temporary home for the upper chamber, while Parliament’s Centre Block is renovated — where she will deliver the speech on behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

She’ll be serenaded by a military band, reduced by more than one third the usual size to just five members.

And she’ll inspect a ceremonial guard of 15 members of the Canadian Armed Forces — all of whom will be wearing masks and standing the requisite two metres apart.

Once in the Senate chamber, Payette will speak to a much smaller and somewhat less illustrious crowd than usual.

The Senate’s senior protocol officer has notified senators that no special guests will be allowed in the chamber.

The public galleries will be empty, apart from just four reporters who’ll be allowed in.

Most senators will not have their usual front-row seats. At least 15 of the 105 senators must be in the chamber to achieve quorum. But the others are being advised to watch the proceedings on television or on their computers.

Same goes for MPs.

Ordinarily, the usher of the black rod and other Senate officers march over to the House of Commons, bang on the door and summon MPs to attend the Queen’s representative in the Senate. The MPs then walk over to the Senate, where they crowd behind the brass bar at the entrance to the chamber to listen to the speech.

Government whip Mark Holland is negotiating with opposition parties to curtail the number of MPs who will make the trip between chambers.

“The numbers will be kept to a bare minimum,” he says.

Joan Bryden and Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Federal Politics

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Katrine Conroy
Katrine Conroy declared winner in Kootenay West

Preliminary results put NDP candidate firmly in the lead.

There are few details but neighbours a Second Avenue house in Chilliwack say a huge police presence descended on the home after shots were heard. (File photo)
RCMP looking for witnesses in $5000 auto part theft

Two catalytic converters valued around $5000 were taken Oct. 22

Mayor Bruno Tassone was presented with a poppy to launch the Castlegar Legion’s annual poppy campaign. Photo: Submitted
Castlegar Legion kicks off poppy campaign

Remembrance Day ceremonies will look different this year

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

Provincial Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau speaks at Provincial Green Party headquarters at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe in Victoria. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)
VIDEO: Furstenau leads BC Greens to win first riding outside of Vancouver Island

Sonia Furstenau became leader of BC Greens one week before snap election was called

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps NDP candidate Coquitlam-Burke Mountain candidate Fin Donnelly following a seniors round table in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, NDP head for majority in B.C. election results

Record number of mail-in ballots may shift results

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

Most Read