Speech on the Motion to Authorize Hybrid Sittings
Senator Donald Plett: Honourable senators, I rise today as well to add my voice to the debate on the government’s notice of motion regarding hybrid sittings.
Before I begin my remarks, indulge me, please, if you would, colleagues. Sometimes when one doesn’t give quite enough information, then information is assumed and people start thinking certain things and that information is spread around. Pretty soon you’re receiving all kinds of good wishes and so on and so forth, and expressions of hope that you will be back again. I’m not sure how serious some of those are, but I appreciate them. I now know how to garner sympathy from my colleagues. I appreciate all the good wishes I have received, but I want to assure this chamber that the minor medical issue that I have will be entirely alleviated by being away from all of you for a while.
If I can go and put my feet up, I will be back — maybe before Christmas, but certainly in the new year — to continue to be a pain in your sides and so on. As I may be gone until the new year, I’ll take this opportunity to wish all of you a wonderful and safe holiday, happy New Year and Merry Christmas, and I plan to see all of you at least in the new year.
With that, let me just simply say at the outset that I acknowledge the imperative of taking adequate measures to ensure the safety of all senators, their staff and the administration of the Senate. This, colleagues, is not up for debate. What is up for debate, however, is whether hybrid sittings are necessary in order to achieve that. I would argue that they are not.
In fact, not only are hybrid sittings unnecessary, in my opinion, but they are inconsistent with current public health guidelines and make it more difficult for us to complete our work and to complete it in a timely manner. Allow me to elaborate.
It would appear that almost everywhere across the city of Ottawa we are moving out of the pandemic, except, colleagues, in the Parliamentary Precinct.
On October 9, the Ontario government lifted capacity limits to allow 100% capacity at concert venues, theatres, cinemas, meeting and event spaces, spectator areas of sports facilities, horse racing tracks, car racing tracks and television productions with studio audiences.
That means that, as of October 9, 18,652 people who are fully vaccinated and wearing a face mask are permitted to be in attendance to watch the Ottawa Senators play at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. They flood into the concourse. They stand in line to buy beer, hot dogs, hamburgers, coffee and whatever else is available at the concessions. And then when they get to their seats they are permitted to remove these masks so they can enjoy their purchases.
But at a different senators’ venue in Ottawa, called the Senate of Canada Building, we find ourselves debating whether we can have 105 senators in an expansive 309-square-metre room with a 10-metre ceiling.
A couple of weeks later, on October 28, the City of Ottawa dropped all COVID capacity limits and announced a return to 100% capacity levels for recreation and cultural drop-in activities, including halls, pool and arena rentals. If dancing is permitted, then capacity limits would remain at 25%.
But colleagues, other than the occasional celebratory dance moves after the swearing-in ceremonies here in the chamber, we do not usually have dancing in this chamber. This means that, according to public health guidelines, there is no reason we should not have 100% capacity. So why would we not insist upon it?
Perhaps if governing the country and providing accountability and oversight to the spending of public money were not an essential activity, then a compelling argument could be made for the Senate to sit in a hybrid format. However, the last time I checked, Canadians still want their parliamentarians to show up for work.
It seems unconscionable to me that we expect doctors, nurses, school teachers and Costco cashiers to show up for work, and yet we want to give ourselves the option of staying at home.
Just two weeks ago, Canadians watched as 300 Canadian participants showed up at a UN climate change conference in Glasgow, along with thousands of other attendees. This twenty-sixth session of the Conference of the Parties was originally scheduled to take place in November 2020 but was postponed because of the pandemic. This year, COP26 went ahead as planned with thousands of activists and 25,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries in attendance, including approximately 120 heads of state.
We all saw the media coverage of people congregating, often without social distancing and sometimes without masks. Just prior to showing up in Glasgow, our very own Prime Minister was in The Hague where he managed to find time to party it up at a local bar without a mask and with no social distancing. Yet here we are today debating whether senators should show up for work or not.
Watching the ceremonial activities around the Speech from the Throne on Tuesday, I was struck by the contrast of the two images. On the one hand, the Usher of the Black Rod of the Senate, our very own Mr. Greg Peters, could be seen risking his life by walking into an almost full-capacity House of Commons to deliver a message to that house. On the other hand, his trip to this chamber was starkly different with attendance here in the Senate sparse and distanced. I am indeed pleased that Mr. Peters survived his visit to the other place, considering that it was a full house.
Colleagues, let me be clear. Although I am using a bit of humour, I am not advocating for carelessness or having a cavalier attitude towards the virus or the pandemic. I am suggesting that because health guidelines currently permit us to meet in person, there is no compelling reason for us not to do so.
As my colleague, the Honourable Candice Bergen, pointed out yesterday, our prime minister has a pretty good reason to want to stay in a hybrid format. She said:
The reason why Justin Trudeau is putting forward a motion on hybrid Parliament is clear — he wants to avoid accountability. Justin Trudeau is making sure a hybrid Parliament is in place so he will be able to avoid tough questions from Conservative MPs on rising inflation, his contentious scandals, and plans to censor the internet.
Colleagues, on the other hand, we have no reason to be shirking accountability. All of us are the ones to be holding the government to account, not the other way around. We can do that best if we are present in this chamber.
Our appointment to the Senate and our responsibility to the nation compels us to hold ourselves to a higher standard, not a lower one. A failure to do so amplifies the concerns of some Canadians that the decisions being taken are too often based on fear and convenience rather than on science.
It has not helped that the public health guidelines have been constantly shifting over the last two years as our understanding of the virus has changed. The use of face masks is just one example. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were told no face masks were necessary. Later, we were told we should consider wearing one. Eventually, they became mandatory.
People have been generous in their willingness to adapt and comply with the ever-changing landscape. But fatigue and cynicism sets in when the rules are not only changing but are also confusing and inconsistent.
Let me give you a few examples.
This summer, my son was at a school volleyball game where his son was playing. Everyone in the stands had to wear masks. Even the umpire was required to wear a mask sitting high up on a chair. Because the umpire could not properly blow his whistle with the mask on, he was permitted to cut a slit in his mask through which he could blow his whistle. I am very unclear on the science that speaks to moistly spreading COVID, and so therefore you should wear a mask, but blowing a whistle loudly at an indoor sports event does not spread COVID.
We spent a good part of our summer on a property that we lease on a lake in Manitoba where we have a fairly large deck. Manitoba health guidelines permitted five people to be on our deck, which was supposedly on private property, however, our deck touches public property.
The rules were completely different as soon as we got off our deck, where people could set up patio chairs and gather without limitations because it was public property. I could barbeque the hamburgers on my deck and hand them off my deck. These kinds of stories go on and on.
I realize that our understanding of science is evolving, but the inconsistencies drive people crazy, especially when they are criticized simply because they point out these discrepancies and question what the real science is.
Consider the fact that we have governments which one day are threatening to suspend people without pay because they are not fully vaccinated, but when they realize that they are going to be left with a significant hole in their workforce, they do an about-face and change their policy. What are people to conclude from this? Were those decisions based on science, convenience or popular opinion?
We now have a vaccine for children. I think that’s wonderful for those who want to see their children vaccinated. How long will it be until we begin to erode the rights of parents to raise their children by mandating that they must be vaccinated to attend school? I question why we are mandating vaccines at all.
I went and got my vaccine, colleagues, as soon as I was eligible. Nobody had to coerce me or mandate me. I did it because I felt that it was the best thing for my safety, and that of people around me. Not everybody has my opinion, and they have the right to theirs.
I question why we are mandating vaccines at all, not because I question the value of being vaccinated. I encourage everyone who is able to get vaccinated to do so.
If someone is unable, is fearful or believes that the risk is higher for them to be vaccinated than to remain unvaccinated, why would we not adopt a policy which is more reflective than on the autocratic dictatorship that we have now in a democracy, which believes in personal rights and freedoms? This kind of approach is a danger to our society because it fosters fear and paranoia, and erodes the public trust which is essential to the health of our society.
Colleagues, when we are insisting that others must show up for work while we should be able to stay home, and we have no real scientific basis to support the claim that it is more dangerous to assemble in this chamber than it is to shop at Walmart, we strengthen the narrative that feeds the conspiracy theories and empowers those who want to ignore public health directives.
I would argue that gathering in person to do our work as senators is not only permitted and safe under current public health guidelines, but it is necessary for the proper execution of our responsibilities as senators.
Just two days ago, colleagues, we witnessed the summoning of eight new senators to this chamber. Like every senator, their appointment to the Senate of Canada was made by a summons from the Governor General. Part of that summons reads as follows:
AND WE do command you, that all difficulties and excuses whatsoever laying aside, you be and appear for the purposes aforesaid, in the Senate of Canada at all times whensoever and wheresoever Our Parliament may be in Canada convoked and holden, and this you are in no wise to omit.
Sometimes I wonder if disproportionate anxiety about COVID-19 falls under the category of difficulties or excuses. Either way, we are admonished to lay aside such challenges and appear in the Senate of Canada at all times whensoever and wheresoever our Parliament may be in Canada convoked and holden.
I am quite concerned that almost two years into the pandemic — when we are fully vaccinated, understand the value of face masks and have public health approval to meet in person — we are still insisting that we need to defy the summons which brought us to this place in the first place.
Colleagues, our prior experience with hybrid sittings demonstrated quite clearly that they are a less efficient use of our time and impede our ability to do our work. Senator Patterson pointed that out just a few minutes ago with some internet problems that they have up north.
First, because of the technological limitations, there were bandwidth and connectivity issues. Concurrent committee meetings had to be scaled back because of limited resources. Furthermore, it has been reported that some 70% of our interpreters suffered some form of acoustic or cognitive injuries as a result of either technological limitations or the failure of parliamentarians to use the equipment properly.
I would argue that, in addition to the technological challenges, fulfilling the role of a senator simply cannot be done properly without a face-to-face meeting. Much of our work takes place outside of this chamber in smaller meetings, conversations in hallways, and through building relationships and trust with each other. One cannot underestimate the value of trust, understanding and camaraderie, which are very difficult to build and maintain when you are meeting virtually.
Holding in-person meetings, both in this chamber and outside of it, maximizes our effectiveness and ensures that we are serving Canadians to the very best of our ability. Colleagues, I understand this is not a vote that we in all likelihood would win if we decided on a standing vote. For that reason, we’re not going to insist on it. I, for one, will allow this to pass on division. There may be others that think otherwise. But I am very concerned that we are minimizing the true cost of hybrid sittings, both in terms of public confidence in this institution and in terms of our ability to do our work effectively. If I could be assured that these were temporary changes, my concerns would be somewhat alleviated. However, I think it is time to come to terms with the fact that COVID is not temporary. All signs are that it will become endemic and will continue to extract its toll on society on an annual basis far into the future. Vaccinations will minimize that impact, but not eliminate it.
Our objective must not be to avoid all risk, but to determine how we can effectively do our work in this place in as safe a manner as possible. If we fail to do this, colleagues, then I see no sunset on the demands for hybrid sittings, which means we are in danger of ratcheting down the effectiveness of this institution on a permanent basis. In my view, it is imperative that we avoid such an outcome.