Guest column: Hybrid MP participation can make parliament more inclusive

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By Erica Rayment and Melanee Thomas

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After two years of pandemic-enforced remote work, many workplaces across Canada are determining the ideal balance between in-person and remote work. Parliament must do the same.

When the House of Commons rose for the summer, Canadian MPs lost the ability to participate virtually in a “hybrid parliament” where they have the option to attend meetings and vote in person or virtually.

But to stop using a hybrid parliament seems to us to be a mistake. A hybrid parliament has the potential to make Canada’s key democratic institutions more representative and inclusive.

Hybrid parliaments can be more welcoming to women and other underrepresented groups. In order to reap these benefits, any future hybrid parliamentary model must be designed with fairness and accessibility in mind.

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All of the usual considerations around remote working are relevant for parliamentarians, including travel times and work-life balance. But parliament is more than a workplace. It is a democratic institution charged with representing the interests and diversity of Canadians, holding governments accountable for their actions, and passing the laws by which we are all governed.

Given this unique role, considerations for remote operations versus in-person operations take on increased importance.

A hybrid work model for Members of Parliament has the potential to help Parliament better reflect Canadians, both in terms of those present and the voices heard.

Currently, white men make up 36% of the Canadian population, but still make up the majority of MPs. The average age of MPs is also generally at least 10 years older than that of Canadians.

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Research repeatedly confirms who someone is and how they experience the world, shapes the issues and positions they put forward in political debate. Having MPs who look like Canadians is a minimum requirement for Parliament to fulfill its representative function.

How could a hybrid parliament help?

To participate in parliament in person, MPs must travel to Ottawa. To perform their constituency duties, Members must be present in their constituency. For many, this means an exhausting journey. Allowing remote participation creates space for representatives who may have difficulty traveling due to disability, parental and care responsibilities, or illness.

Data from the UK shows that women parliamentarians are significantly more likely to participate in parliament virtually, as it has helped them to balance their work as parliamentarians with their responsibilities at home.

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Hybrid parliamentary procedures alone cannot overturn systems of discrimination that make it harder for women, racialized people and people with disabilities to pursue political careers. But giving MPs the ability to participate remotely sends an important signal.

Critics of the hybrid model say we lose something essential when Parliament meets online rather than in person. According to them, the ability of MPs to represent their constituents and hold the government to account is compromised if these functions are carried out by videoconference.

Yet hybrid parliaments make it easier for MPs to represent the interests of their constituents by allowing them to spend more time in their constituencies. Similarly, there is nothing inherently irresponsible about hybrid meetings.

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If MPs can debate, vote and ask questions remotely, the accountability of the House of Commons could be strengthened by ensuring that as many MPs as possible can participate.

Responsibility is a matter of design, ability and will; the mode by which this occurs does not change this.

A hybrid system is not a panacea, but that alone is a bad argument against its implementation. We must transform the systems and structures that impede equitable and diverse representation in Canada.

This requires ensuring that gender and diversity sensitivity considerations are incorporated into the design of remote participation rules from the outset.

Over the past two years, parliamentary staff have made extraordinary strides in creating the infrastructure necessary to make remote participation a reality. We now have the opportunity to build on this progress and expand it.

As the public health rationale for a virtual parliament recedes, we must not lose sight of the ways in which remote participation can make parliament more democratic by making it more inclusive, fair and accountable.

Erica Rayment is Assistant Professor and Melanee Thomas is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary.

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