Making a Bad Thing Worse: Parenting MPs and the Pandemic

Article 5 / 14 , Vol 43 No 3 (Autumn)

Making a Bad Thing Worse: Parenting MPs and the Pandemic

Canadian MPs have only very recently had access to paid maternity and parental leave. Yet there is an absence in related rules and arrangements that would allow them to continue representing constituents while being granted leave from the House of Commons. In this article, the authors contrast parenting leave in the Canadian House of Commons with the arrangements now permitted in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons. In light of the experiments with virtual proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors suggest a future where a hybrid parliament that combines in-person and virtual participation or one that permits features like proxy voting would be desirable for not only MPs on parenting leave, but also for any MP who could not be present during a sitting for medical necessity, bereavement, inclement weather, geographic distance, or many other reasons.

Amanda Bittner and Melanee Thomas

Canadian MPs have only very recently had access to paid maternity and parental leave. Yet there is an absence in related rules and arrangements that would allow them to continue representing constituents while being granted leave from the House of Commons. In this article, the authors contrast parenting leave in the Canadian House of Commons with the arrangements now permitted in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons. In light of the experiments with virtual proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors suggest a future where a hybrid parliament that combines in-person and virtual participation or one that permits features like proxy voting would be desirable for not only MPs on parenting leave, but also for any MP who could not be present during a sitting for medical necessity, bereavement, inclement weather, geographic distance, or many other reasons.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a number of issues, concerns, and constraints for parents. Unprecedented numbers have lost their jobs entirely; those still employed struggle to balance work with childcare and other caring responsibilities. With COVID shutdowns, essential workers can be left without anyone to care for their children. For parents whose work duties are now entirely completed from home, the reality is that they can work, or they can parent, but they rarely can do both.

All of this is exacerbated for women. Even though men do more in the home now than in the past, women still do the lion’s share of unpaid household labour. This is especially acute when it comes to childcare. Add to this the fact that over four in five lone parents are women, and that women have suffered the brunt of the COVID job losses, and it’s fair to say the harshest economic consequences are falling on mothers.

This tension between work and care is not new – scholarship on the welfare state argues we simply cannot understand the economy or social programs without understanding the dynamics of this unpaid care women disproportionately provide. The pandemic has simply highlighted that how we think about gender, work, and care responsibilities remain very outdated.

The tension in the work-care balance is especially clear for Canadian Members of Parliament (MPs). Existing maternity and parental leave provisions for our representatives are both new and inadequate. Where other Westminster parliaments, especially Britain, have meaningfully discussed and addressed how to best to allow parenting MPs to balance commitments with parliamentary work, Canada has not. We argue in this paper that the sequence of events in Canada is key to the future of policies on this issue: by failing to introduce adequate measures to accommodate parenting MPs’ absence from the House when they introduced parental leave policies, those mechanisms are now tainted in Canada by partisan bickering about how to address COVID-19. This renders their introduction and use for parenting leave more difficult than it would have been, had more serious and appropriate consideration of how best to address parenting leave and parliamentary work for MPs been done in the first place.

Workplace equity, parental leave, and the Canadian House of Commons

For most workplaces outside politics, governments around the world have regulated maternity and parental leaves, taken childcare and early childhood education seriously, and enacted laws that support children and families, allowing for substantial increases in the proportion of women present in the workforce. Yet, as a workplace, legislatures in general, and the Canadian House of Commons in particular, lag woefully behind.

Canadian Members of Parliament (MPs) have only had access to parental leave for about a year. In June 2019, the Canadian House of Commons unanimously adopted a policy that would allow Members of Parliament (MPs) to take paid maternity and parental leave. Prior to this, MPs absent for more than 21 days for anything other than illness or official business would be docked $120 a day. The new policy is a necessary first step.

However, unlike in other jurisdictions, no other formal rules or arrangements changed alongside this parental leave. For Canada’s MPs, taking maternity and parental leave simply removes them from the House. Tasks and duties associated with constituency representation are clearly intended to continue as normal during an MP’s parenting leave.

In practice, this means a process called pairing is used, not only for any MP on parenting leave but also for any MP who cannot be in the House for a protracted period of time. Pairing matches the MP on leave with an MP on the other side of the House of Commons to ensure that partisan balances remain intact across the government and opposition parties, for any votes taking place in the legislature.

There are at least two problems with this situation. First, pairing renders the voice of the MP on parenting leave completely silent in the House. This ensures parenting leave is unappealing for MPs committed to parliamentary work and doubles as an effective attack against an MP who may wish to spend dedicated time with a new child. Research highlights how taking voices out of the legislative debate is problematic, especially when those voices are from underrepresented or marginalized groups. Their experiences are relevant to policy, and their ability to participate in legislative debate and process helps ensure information derived from those experiences is integrated, at least in part, into the process. Most Canadian MPs are men, and their average age is consistently above 50. Parenting leave, as it currently exists for Canadian MPs, ensures that new parents, especially mothers, and the policy-relevant information they would bring to parliamentary debate, are absent.

Second, the logic behind pairing suggests MPs’ work is best understood as a partisan activity that can only occur when they are physically present in the House. Opposition to alternative measures to accommodate MPs on parenting leave are often, if not always, located here on this issue, as opponents believe that MPs not physically situated in the House cannot meaningfully engage with their work.

Parenting MPs in Canada are thus in a lose-lose scenario. They are not, in fact, free from work to parent in their early days with their child. Instead, MPs on parenting leave are still expected to work full-time in the constituency as if they were not on leave, while also being forced to abandon all work associated with the House, unable to make the constituents they’re still working for full-time present in our institutions of government.

A Better Way: Parental Leave and Proxy Voting in Britain

Like Canada, parenting leave for parliamentarians in Britain is still relatively new. In January 2019, a trial scheme allowed MPs who are new parents to apply to the Speaker to designate a proxy. This allows MPs on parenting leave to participate in parliamentary votes.

The origins of the proxy voting trial highlight the shortcomings of procedures like pairing. In July 2018, Jo Swinson, a Liberal Democrat MP on maternity leave was paired with Brandon Lewis, a senior Tory MP and party chairperson. Instead of abstaining on all votes as he was required to do by the pairing mechanism, Lewis voted on a key Brexit vote even though he had abstained from other votes. As a result of this pairing failure, Labour MP Tulip Siddiq delayed a scheduled caesarean section to vote on another key Brexit bill in January 2019, for fear that the pairing agreement would not be honoured. In Siddiq’s case, the Speaker indicated they would prefer a proxy vote, but it was not yet in their power to grant it. Out of this sequence of events, a pairing failure for one mother in parliament and a delayed birth for another, proxy voting was extended to British MPs on parenting leave.

Proxy voting in Britain was not without controversy, and the issues raised by opponents are likely to be issues for Canadian MPs as well. One key complaint was that anything that took MPs away from the business of Parliament was problematic, on the assumption that MPs simply could not do parliamentary work if they were not physically present in Parliament. The parenting proxy represented a thin edge of the wedge, as proxy votes for maternity and parental leave would open up the possibility that MPs could serve without ever setting foot in Westminster. Ultimately, many do not see legislatures as a “normal” workplace, where normal workplace accommodations can (and should) be made. We have argued in the past that “work is work,” and that perceptions of the nature of political work as special and unique are problematic when it comes to considerations of equity in the workplace.

Despite this, the presence of the proxy voting for MPs on parenting leave was crucial in addressing COVID-19. The British Parliament simply took the parenting leave proxy scheme and amended it to include anyone “unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic.” At the time of writing, this accommodation is extended to September 28, 2020, though it is possible it could be extended further. Thus, the accommodation designed to ensure parenting MPs retained their voice in parliamentary business also ensured MPs who could not or should not travel due to COVID-19 or other medical risks were also able to keep working through the pandemic.

COVID-19, Parenting Leave, and Canada’s Missed Opportunity

As a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, some changes were made to the operations of the Canadian Parliament, with technology facilitating virtual sittings of the House. While the decision to “go remote” was controversial and parties (still) do not agree on the best way to move forward, there has been some experimentation with virtual parliamentary meetings, including emergency sessions of the House, a special COVID-19 committee that met online, as well as virtual committee meetings. Throughout all of this, the normal business of the main chamber has been paused, with up to four meetings each week of a special committee of the whole in which MPs were permitted to participate either remotely or in person.

Might this mark a moment where these COVID-19 accommodations may open space to offer Canada’s MPs on parenting leave better accommodations than simply being absent from all parliamentary business? Perhaps, although we are not terribly hopeful.

Much like the controversy that ensued in Britain over proxy voting, there is substantial disagreement about how the Canadian legislature ought to continue during COVID, which does not bode well for the possibility of remote participation for MPs in the future when the global pandemic is over. There seems to be some concern that anything that takes MPs away from the Chamber is uniformly bad, despite no clear explanation of why this is perceived to be problematic. Critics of the virtual committee meetings have called them “feeble” and a “fake Parliament.” And electronic voting that allows MPs far away from Ottawa to cast votes have been attacked on the grounds of privacy, security, and a “fallacious argument” is used to “silence Parliament.”

Given the disagreement over a temporary change with Commons procedure to adhere to public health requirements, it seems likely that any proposal to allow for electronic votes for MPs on parenting leave would be met with comparable levels of (ideological) resistance. It also seems reasonable to expect that proposals advocating for proxy voting for MPs on parenting leave would be met with comparable resistance. Unlike Britain, Canada’s lack of experience with reasonable accommodation for MPs unable to be in the House beyond pairing ensures any path forward would likely be seen as controversial.

Party Discipline Will Probably Stymie the Path Forward

Parties disagree on these issues. It is difficult to ascertain whether criticisms over remote or proxy voting are about principled concerns about technology or appropriate parliamentary procedure or, conversely, whether it is simply that the opposition parties are taking issue with the government itself. Given the tone of the debate that has taken place, it is difficult to dismiss the idea that party discipline is entirely part of the problem here. This is especially the case when competing proposals would empower whips to vote in blocks for absent MPs.

In many ways, the British experience is instructive. If pairing does not reliably work, especially on higher stakes, highly partisan votes, why do it at all? Proxy voting was justifiably seen there to be a means to ensure that MP’s voices are not silenced. Remote voting could be viewed similarly, particularly in a context with immense geographical distances such as Canada’s.

The crux of the debate about the value of remote work and proxy voting for parliamentarians centres around the concept of “scrutiny” and debate. Does “proper” parliamentary scrutiny require physical presence? We don’t think so. Some features of parliament, such as heckling, are certainly made more difficult, if not rendered obsolete, by virtual legislative sittings. But what matters most for scrutiny is the process associated with debate and investigations that often occur in parliamentary committees. The argument that committee work can only happen face to face on Parliament Hill requires evidence that some work simply cannot happen with MPs working remotely. While this might be true of informal networking or negotiations, British MPs report that they are able to complete this work adequately without being physically present in Parliament. This strongly suggests adequate scrutiny could also exist in Canada via remote or proxy voting, or a hybrid parliament.

We suspect objections to proxy or remote voting in Canada are primarily about party management. Party whips have tools they can use to control MPs—and historically they have used them to achieve certain partisan aims. Disliking proxy voting (and remote parliament more generally) is likely about maintaining power and control over backbenchers. Whips may be concerned that rebellion and defections will grow if MPs are talking remotely via text messages rather than in person under the watchful eye of party whips. While we acknowledge and do not wish to debate the merits of some party discipline, we also observe that heated partisan opposition can lead to institutional and process-related change for no principled reason beyond general opposition to a partisan opponent. This is highly problematic if it creates a barrier for much-needed adaptation to social circumstances relating to MPs’ pregnancies and caring responsibilities, or to global health crises such as COVID-19.

On a more theoretical level, we challenge a narrow understanding of the concept of “scrutiny.” The question we need to ask ourselves (and this is inherently linked to remote parliament in COVID times) is: if the theatre of parliament isn’t happening, is scrutiny really happening? If MPs are not present in the legislature to heckle each other, does this count as a debate? We think the answer is yes; we anticipate many may think the answer is no. Some observers might argue that something is lost if MPs aren’t physically in the house, where things may happen spontaneously; hybrid/remote parliaments eliminate this spontaneity. In this view, something like proxy voting would be seen as anemic and, potentially, an anathema to the spirit of Parliament itself, as a “good” parliamentarian could only, for some people, be a present parliamentarian.

While spontaneity might be useful in some situations, forcing MPs to participate in person or not at all will lead to some MPs and their constituents being stifled; some parliamentarians will inevitably opt for “not at all” in certain circumstances. Take, for example, the case of Robert Halfon, a UK Conservative MP who has spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. In early June, he publicly denounced the UK government’s decision to end hybrid parliament in the middle of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, because his physician had directed him, on medical grounds, not to attend. He suggested that the government was making MPs “parliamentary eunuchs” with this decision, effectively castrating him and preventing him from fully participating and doing his job as a representative of his constituents.

Halfon’s statement points to two important considerations. First, as the extraordinarily gendered language of his statement shows, accommodations designed primarily for mothers often greatly benefit any number of other groups. This challenges any argument that would deny proxy or remote voting for parenting MPs on the grounds that it is too niche or atypical to merit much consideration. Second, there are plenty of legitimate reasons (outside of a pandemic and outside of childbearing) that might prevent MPs from being able to be present in parliament for all legislative debate and votes. The loss of voice of a Member of Parliament who has a disability is a deep loss for the robustness of scrutiny, as the presence of diverse voices bring policy-relevant information. It is reasonable to demand that deliberative and decision-making institutions work hard to maximize access to legislative debate for as many as possible. Indeed, the loss of diverse voices due to requirements of physical presence is a greater loss for scrutiny than the loss of any spontaneity that comes from in-person presence in the legislature.

Beyond Parenting Leaves

Remote work, proxy voting, and creative thinking about how to include voices in parliamentary debate and deliberation have the potential to provide the key to both a healthier democracy as well as a more equitable and open workplace. One major barrier for many women, for example, who might otherwise be interested in a career in politics, is geographical distance from the capital city where the legislature is located. Women with children may be unwilling to commute back and forth from their home district to the legislature, and may therefore remove themselves from the pool of potential candidates. This means that legislatures are likely to miss the voices from this important demographic of citizens, with important knowledge and expertise that would benefit policy making for the country as a whole.

Geography is a key consideration in Canadian politics and many electoral systems allocate legislative seats based on geographic considerations. This means that for some MPs, commutes are short and simple, while for others, commutes are long; for many individuals this travel is completely prohibitive. A hybrid parliament that allows for at least some remote participation would make participation easier (and safer) for many. This is especially true in COVID times, but remains true for many groups in Canadian society even when this global pandemic no longer constrains public life. Is it really fair for representatives from Yellowknife or northern/rural BC to have exceedingly long commutes to Ottawa while their colleagues from Kingston or Montreal can easily hop on a quick train ride and seamlessly arrive in the capital city? A routinely hybrid parliament would allow for greater equity of access to the legislature across all MPs (and, by extension, all constituents) in Canada.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all that working remotely is not only possible but also beneficial for many careers in Canada. Many companies are permanently downsizing their physical office space on a go-forward basis as they have come to realize that many of their employees do not actually need to be physically present in order to effectively do their jobs. Many employers are creating shared space for their employees to use when they do come into the physical office and allowing for greater flex-time and hybrid models of remote working and in-person working.

The pandemic has laid bare many things that have been true for a long time: there are substantial inequities when it comes to work distribution in the home, and while not a solution to gendered home/care responsibilities, employees benefit from flexible employers who provide them with autonomy (when possible) in terms of both schedules as well as working from home provided they are able to achieve their goals and meet expectations.

Employers across the country have watched their employees work from home during a pandemic, have tracked what works well and what does not, and are doing what they can to carry forward some of the best practices from this world of remote working. Perhaps this lesson can be carried into the House of Commons as well: we ought to track how remote parliament is working, what works and what doesn’t, and carry forward the best lessons into the future operation of Parliament, and we might realize that debate and deliberation are working fairly well (and if you count the lack of heckling, perhaps better), and that the distaste for remote parliament and proxy voting is not about whether or not this actually works, but is about preferences for a particular type of legislature, one that actually serves to silence voices on a regular (and not random) basis.

The UK’s proxy voting pilot was created very narrowly to extend only to parental leaves. There is some debate now about extending this provision to illness and bereavement as well. We think this makes sense, and we think that this would make sense in the Canadian context as well. Indeed, we think that a permanent hybrid model might actually be ideal as a workspace, allowing MPs to be physically present when possible, but to work remotely when they cannot be present, regardless of the reason. Work is work. And if an MP can work remotely from their dining room table during a major snowstorm and still have their voice echo through the Chamber in the House of Commons, why is this a problem?

In the same way as connecting with our colleagues for a department meeting via Zoom while we work from home and care for our children and loved ones does not prohibit engagement with and scrutiny of administrative policy documents, MPs connecting remotely to the legislature to engage with their colleagues and to debate and scrutinize proposed legislation is not “less than” in-person debate. Furthermore, it is substantially “more than” would be possible if those same MPs were not able to engage in a debate because they were not able to be physically present, regardless of the reason for their lack of presence.

Conclusions

A hybrid model—partially remote, partially physically present—is the optimal model for the future of parliament, to ensure that MPs are regularly able to be present and to represent their constituents. There is now precedent for this in Canada due to COVID, and MPs have gained familiarity with the technology that makes it possible to work remotely and to engage with each other in a formal discussion even if they are not physically present in the House together. This model, if it was extended into the future, would allow for the better “workplace accommodation” of MPs who have special circumstances that prevent them from being able to be in the House, including maternity leaves, other care responsibilities, illnesses, natural disasters, major snowstorms, and so on.

All of these legitimate reasons for MPs’ absence should not prevent their voices from being heard in the legislature, and if legislative procedure prohibits their participation completely, then we have a situation in which the voices of some constituencies are (potentially systematically) left out of the House of Commons debate. Effectively, this creates a two-tiered system of MPs in Canada: by requiring all MPs to be present, some might argue that we create equality between them, as they are all present. But, in reality, they are not all present. They cannot necessarily always be present, for a diverse set of reasons. Requiring their presence actually discriminates against them and prevents them from being able to do their jobs to the fullest, which they would be able to do if they were able to connect to the House of Commons remotely.

The challenge is that, unlike Britain, Canada had no experience with workplace accommodations for MPs beyond pairing, rendering reasonable options, including proxy voting, more controversial than they should be. The difficulty is that Canadian democracy is weaker because of parliamentary procedures that make it more difficult for some MPs to do their jobs compared to others. We have had the opportunity to learn many lessons throughout the pandemic, and if we can carry those lessons into the future to improve life and work for all Canadians, then we should. The lesson of the potential for remote work, remote deliberation and remote debate is one that can (and should) be carried over and applied to MPs at least, at a minimum, when they’re on parenting leave.

Notes

1 Gøsta Esping-Andersen, ed. Why We Need a New Welfare State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

2 Teresa Wright. “House of Commons unanimously adopts new parental-leave policy for MPs,” CBC News, Jun 14, 2019. URL: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/parental-leave-commons-1.5175413.

3 Rachel Aiello. “House approves year-long, fully paid parental leave from the Commons for MPs,” CTV News, June 12, 2019. URL: https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/house-approves-year-long-fully-paid-parental-leave-from-the-commons-for-mps-1.4463452

4 House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition, 2009. URL: https://www.ourcommons.ca/procedure-book-livre/document.aspx?sbdid=37461d8b-10dc-48a4-99a8-8a843ba16e8a&sbpidx=5

5 Jane Mansbridge. “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes”.” The Journal of Politics 61(3), 1999: pp. 628-657.

6 “Find Out More About Canada’s Members of Parliament.” OurCommons.ca, 2008. URL: https://www.ourcommons.ca/About/ReportToCanadians/2008/rtc2008_03-e.html#a2

7 Susanne Dovi. “Political Representation.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018. URL: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-representation/

8 “Proxy Voting,” MPs Guide to Procedure, UK Parliament. URL: https://guidetoprocedure.parliament.uk/collections/1lh5CMcS/proxy-voting

9 “Jo Swinson says says Tories broke Brexit vote agreement.” BBC News, July 18, 2018. URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-44867866

10 “Labour MP Tulip Siddiq delays birth to vote on Brexit.” BBC News, January 14, 2019. URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-46868195

11 Amanda Bittner and Thomas, Melanee. “Moms in Politics: Work is Work,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, Vol 40 No 3 (Autumn), 2017. URL: http://www.revparlcan.ca/en/vol40-no3-moms-in-politics-work-is-work/

12 “Proxy Voting Scheme Extension.” UK Parliament. https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-public-bill-office/Proxy%20voting%20scheme_extension_10%20June%202020.pdf

13 Aaron Wherry. “The pandemic could be an opening to build a better Parliament.” CBC News, May 30, 2020. URL: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/parliament-commons-trudeau-scheer-1.5591224

14 “Liberals, NDP vote to waive normal Commons proceedings during pandemic.” CBC News, May 26, 2020. URL: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/liberals-ndp-team-up-in-commons-vote-1.5586038

15 Laura Ryckewaert. “While some MPs urge adoption, Conservatives still skeptical about remote voting.” The Hill Times, June 10, 2020. URL: https://www.hilltimes.com/2020/06/10/while-some-mps-urge-adoption-conservatives-still-skeptical-about-remote-voting/251866

16 “If an MP heckles in a virtual House of Commons, does it make a sound?” CityNews, May 27, 2020. URL: https://toronto.citynews.ca/2020/05/27/parliament-canada-coronavirus/

17 Elise Uberoi and Kelly, Richard. “Coronavirus: What does data show about men and women MPs in the hybrid Commons?” UK Parliament, May 26, 2020. URL: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/parliament-and-elections/men-and-women-mps-in-the-hybrid-commons/

18 “Robert Halfon: Government making MPs ‘
Parliamentary eunuchs’” BBC News, June 2, 2020. URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-52891863/robert-halfon-government-making-mps-parliamentary-eunuchs