The National Assembly in the Time of COVID-19

Article 9 / 14 , Vol 43 No 3 (Autumn)

The National Assembly in the Time of COVID-19

The National Assembly of Quebec was one of many Canadian parliaments that had to confront the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, the author outlines the steps taken to ensure parliamentary activities could continue and what temporary – and longer-term – changes were made to respond to the directives of public health officials.

François Paradis

The National Assembly of Quebec was one of many Canadian parliaments that had to confront the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, the author outlines the steps taken to ensure parliamentary activities could continue and what temporary – and longer-term – changes were made to respond to the directives of public health officials.

The National Assembly of Québec was not spared the significant upheaval caused by the COVID19 pandemic in spring 2020. The exceptional circumstances we faced forced our parliamentarians to swiftly adapt their practices.

One of the difficulties confronting our elected representatives at this time was agreeing on how to adapt and modify our rules so that the National Assembly and its parliamentary committees could play their respective roles. For instance, we had no rules allowing sittings to be held remotely or with a reduced number of MNAs. Many important, even historic, decisions had to be made in negotiations held outside the usual framework governing parliamentary proceedings. Tantamount to parliamentary high-wire acrobatics, this exercise required a significant degree of trust between the different parliamentary groups and considerable flexibility on the part of both the Government and the Opposition parties.

On March 13, 2020, by virtue of the powers conferred on it by the Public Health Act, the Québec government issued an order in council declaring a public health emergency throughout Québec. At the time, the National Assembly was engaged in the budget process for fiscal 2020–2021. The Minister of Finance had delivered the budget speech on March 10 and, the next day, the parliamentary committees had begun examining the estimates of expenditure. The Assembly was also slated to examine the supplementary estimates requested by the Government for fiscal 2019–2020.

The onset of the state of emergency cut this process short. It soon became apparent, given the scope of the situation and the disruptions that were bound to follow, that it was unrealistic for the Assembly to continue its regular proceedings as we moved into what would become a near total lockdown of Québec society. The unusual nature of these events is reflected in the fact that the last time the Assembly had to suspend its proceedings for a similar reason dates back to 1852, when a cholera epidemic broke out in Québec City.

Already on March 12, together with the Premier and the leaders of the parliamentary groups, I announced that the Assembly’s reception pavilion was closed and that visitor access to the Parliament Building was suspended. This preventive measure, aimed at limiting the number of people present at the Assembly, remained in force in the summer of 2020. In addition, all MNAs’ international missions, and hosting of foreign delegations, were cancelled.

In the days that followed, the parliamentarians reached an agreement enabling the Assembly to adjourn its proceedings, while expediting certain urgent matters. At the beginning of the March 17 sitting, the Government House Leader moved a motion detailing the plan for adjourning the Assembly. The highlights follow.

To begin with, under this motion, several steps in the budget process were deemed completed. The Assembly considered the supplementary estimates for the fiscal year then ending examined and adopted. However, it mandated the Committee on Public Finance to debate them once the remainder of the main estimates had been adopted in order to allow the Opposition Members to question the Government on them. The debate on the budget speech was also deemed concluded, and the parliamentarians agreed to put the grievance motions moved during this debate as well as the Minister of Finances’ motion that the Assembly approve the Government’s budgetary policy to a vote immediately. The parliamentarians also agreed to hold a debate in the House and before the Committee on Public Finance if the Government decided to introduce an economic update before introducing the next budget, which it did on June 19. Finally, to be able to pass a number of key bills in that same sitting, the Assembly also agreed to consider several stages of the legislative process required in their regard to have been completed.

It goes without saying that these exceptional measures, which involved suspending many provisions of the National Assembly’s Standing Orders, required the unanimous consent of the Members. In this respect, implementation of the adjournment plan reflects the Members’ spirit of collaboration in this time of crisis. Under this motion, the Government also undertook to communicate frequently with the leaders of the Opposition groups to inform them of changes in the situation.

After the March 17 sitting, the Assembly adjourned until April 21, while providing for the possibility to defer resumption of its proceedings if in the public interest. On April 16, a new agreement was reached. Although the Opposition groups and independent Members acknowledged the need to extend the adjournment, they also felt it was their duty to question the Government with regard to the pandemic and the emergency response measures adopted to contain it.

It was, therefore, deemed appropriate to develop a parliamentary oversight mechanism allowing the Government to account for its actions while complying with the physical distancing directives in effect. As a result, the Assembly committees went virtual. On April 16, under the new agreement, the Assembly mandated several parliamentary committees to meet in order to allow exchanges between their Members and the Government’s ministers on the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic. For these accountability meetings, it was decided that committee members would participate remotely via the Microsoft Teams videoconferencing platform. It was also decided to defer resumption of the Assembly to May 5 since the agreement reached by the parliamentarians had to be ratified by adopting a motion once the Members reconvened.

The first virtual sitting of a National Assembly parliamentary committee took place on April 24, 2020. Thanks to the work of the Assembly’s technical teams, this format proved very successful and was used again the following week for three other, similar sittings.

In the meantime, with the session scheduled to end on June 12, the window of time available to the Government for advancing its legislative program was shrinking. On May 4, an agreement for the gradual resumption of parliamentary proceedings was finally reached.

This agreement provided for a two-phase resumption plan. To begin with, the Members agreed to meet initially on May 13 to officially adopt the two agreements reached while the Assembly was adjourned and, exceptionally, to hold two consecutive Question Periods. At the end of this sitting, the Assembly adjourned until May 26, when regular proceedings resumed for three weeks.

The parliamentarians had planned beforehand to examine certain urgent matters, agreeing to introduce and pass three private bills and to finish examining a number of public bills by setting aside the Standing Orders so as to be able to carry out several stages in their consideration in the same sitting. In addition, the parliamentary committees were mandated to carry out certain specific orders of reference.

The May 4 agreement also provided for holding further accountability meetings using the virtual parliamentary committee format established on April 16.

At the same time, certain logistical arrangements were made to comply with public health directives. It was determined that a maximum of 36 Members, in addition to the President and the Assembly staff needed for parliamentary proceedings, could sit in the National Assembly Chamber at a time while maintaining a minimum two-metre distance between them. A seating chart was prepared and desks were either moved or removed from the Chamber as required. It was strongly suggested that masks be worn when circulating in the Parliament Building, and traffic corridors were defined to regulate travel in the hallways. The National Assembly’s page service, ordinarily responsible for transmitting documents in the House, was suspended. Printed documents were replaced by implementing a digital document tabling platform allowing the Assembly Clerks to classify and publish tabled documents in real time during the sittings. Hand sanitizer gel was made available to all in many locations throughout the building and reusable water bottles were supplied to the parliamentarians and House staff to replace the glasses of water formerly distributed by the pages. Finally, although the vast majority of Assembly employees were able to continue performing their duties remotely, those whose responsibilities required them to be on site were issued masks.

Given the maximum number of MNAs authorized to sit at one time, not all Members could be present simultaneously to participate in the Assembly’s decisions. To sidestep this difficulty, the parliamentarians adopted an exceptional voting procedure, informally designated “recorded division.” In keeping with this procedure, when the Assembly was asked to rule on a matter, the President called on the leaders of the parliamentary groups in turn to take a position on behalf of all of the Members of their respective groups. This way, all of the Members who belonged to a parliamentary group were able, through their parliamentary leader, to express their assent or opposition to the Assembly’s decisions and, thus, have their name included in the Votes and Proceedings. It was agreed that the Government House Leader would be authorized to vote on behalf of the independent Members in their absence, in accordance with their instructions on each bill governed by the agreement.

The parliamentarians also took steps to finish examining and adopting the estimates of expenditure. On March 11, before proceedings were adjourned, the Assembly had already adopted the interim supply estimates, as permitted by the Standing Orders, to cover the Government’s financial requirements for the first three months of the fiscal year, a period generally allowing the parliamentary committees to complete their examination of the main estimates. The Assembly then sent all of the main estimates to be examined in the standing committees.

When proceedings resumed, a new program was needed and the following procedure was agreed on. Under the motion carried on May 13, the Assembly rescinded the order it had referred to the standing committees and mandated the Committee of the Whole to examine another quarter of the estimates of expenditure, covering expenditures for the period July to September inclusively. The Committee of the Whole, in turn, was immediately deemed to have completed the examination, and its report was deemed concurred in. This way, when proceedings resumed on May 26, the Government was able to introduce Bill 62, Appropriation Act No. 2, 2020-21, which was passed straightaway under the motion.

Immediately thereafter and under the same motion, the Assembly mandated the Committee of the Whole to examine the 2020–2021 estimates of expenditure and deemed its examination completed and its report concurred in. To comply with the Standing Orders, the report was considered a report from a standing committee after completing its examination. The Government was, thus, able to introduce Bill 63, Appropriation Act No.3, 2020-21, which was also passed straightaway.

Consequently, at the very outset of the May 26 sitting, all of the main estimates for fiscal 2020–2021 were adopted. However, to allow the Opposition groups to question the Government on them, the Assembly mandated the standing committees to examine the 2020–2021 estimates of expenditure for 100 hours, reserved exclusively for the Opposition Members. This examination, which occurred in August, was a departure from the normal stage of examining estimates of expenditure in committee. It constituted an ad hoc order referred to the committees to enable their a posteriori examination, without putting the question.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused many disruptions to which the Assembly had to adapt rapidly, it also precipitated certain changes, such as implementation of the electronic tabling procedure mentioned above, which were falready on a long list of subjects being deliberated when the crisis struck. On May 26, 2020, I tabled a proposal for parliamentary reform entitled Une Assemblée nationale dynamique, moderne et à l’écoute (A National Assembly that is Dynamic, Modern and in Touch with Quebecers). This reform proposal, whose introduction was unfortunately delayed due to the pandemic, sets out four main objectives: establish better oversight and accountability processes, improve the organization and planning of parliamentary business, continue to integrate the use of technologies in parliamentary business and promote greater citizen involvement in parliamentary work and proceedings. It supplements a proposal paper for parliamentary reform tabled by the Government House Leader last February.

In the spring 2020 session, the National Assembly reacted quickly and capably to daunting, new challenges. Our parliamentarians showed an exemplary spirit of collaboration and the Assembly’s administrative staff proved particularly effective in responding to the various adaptations required. When this major upheaval is over, given the outstanding work done at this time, I am fully convinced that the National Assembly of Québec will be able to make advantageous use of recent events to improve and modernize its practices.