No going back: Canada’s work-from-home MPs fight to preserve virtual Parliament
“Imagine if… [your] employer said you’re allowed to see your kids on Saturday. And we need you to work that day. That’s the current life under the old system,” said Liberal MP Terry Beech, who represents a riding in the western province of British Columbia. “I don’t think any Canadian would see that as reasonable.”
Since the height of the pandemic, when working remotely was the rule, many members of Parliament have returned to Ottawa on a regular basis, preferring to stand in the House of Commons than to appear on a screen.
But some have not. POLITICO reached out to a group of MPs who’ve chosen to mostly stay home, based on an analysis of travel expense reports since the last federal election in September 2021.
Some have had serious health problems, and say working remotely was their only option. Some still worry about contracting Covid. But some, like Beech, say they don’t plan on returning to the way things were.
Beech and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, both Liberal MPs with young children, are open about choosing to spend more time away from Ottawa.
“I’ve spent a large majority of my time in the constituency,” said Erskine-Smith, who lives in Toronto. “If you want serious people, younger people, people who want to be good spouses and be good parents to do this job … there has to be a certain level of flexibility to work remotely.”
If Parliament went back to fully in-person proceedings, he added, “there is no chance I would run again.”
This may be a moot point, given that Erskine-Smith is seriously considering a run for the leadership of the provincial Liberal party in Ontario. But he’s not alone. Last fall, NDP MP Laurel Collins, who has a young daughter, told the parliamentary committee considering the future of hybrid Parliament that she wasn’t sure she’d run again after the next election if virtual appearances weren’t an option.
Beech said the pre-pandemic system was particularly unfair for MPs from western Canada, who travel long distances to Ottawa. As a parliamentary secretary — essentially an assistant to a Cabinet minister — Beech had to be in the House of Commons on Fridays, while many MPs head back to their ridings on Thursday evenings. After arriving home late Friday night, he would have Saturday to see his family and do constituency work, before heading back to Ottawa on Sunday.
The hybrid Parliament has changed all that. “Managed correctly, you have more time to hit the gym, kiss your wife and pick up your kids from childcare,” he said in written comments to POLITICO. “I have to say I really enjoy attending national caucus meetings on my treadmill from time to time.”
Beech said his new schedule also allows him to spend more time attending events in his constituency.
Others view things differently, however. The opposition Conservatives have long called for a full return to in-person proceedings, claiming the hybrid option allows the government to dodge accountability. Still, some within their ranks have relied heavily on virtual appearances and remote voting.
Conservative MP Todd Doherty said he wants to be back in the House of Commons full-time, but a serious injury has prevented him. Shortly after the 2021 election, he had knee-replacement surgery. Then, during the first week of the parliamentary session, he slipped on a wet floor and damaged his leg so badly he was at risk of losing it. He’s now recovering from a second surgery last December.
“I took full advantage of hybrid because it was out of necessity,” he said.
Despite a 17-hour commute between Ottawa and his northern B.C. riding, Doherty said he wants to get back to the way things were. “There’s not many Canadians that can say that they’ve been able to deliver speeches on the floor of the House of Commons,” he said. “And I think there’s nothing that will ever take that place.”
If hybrid proceedings hadn’t been an option, he said, “I would have made it work. There’s no two ways about it — I would have done the best I could.”
A few other Conservatives have also been conspicuously absent. Manitoba MP Ted Falk, one of a small group of Conservatives who disappeared from the House of Commons after a Covid vaccination requirement was imposed in the fall of 2021, appears to have spent very few sitting days in Ottawa between the election and the following summer break. Falk did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Other MPs say illness or fragile health has kept them on Zoom and out of Ottawa. Liberal MP Parm Bains, who has spent almost no time on Parliament Hill since he was elected as a rookie in 2021, has spoken openly about the dialysis treatment and kidney transplant that have kept him home in Richmond, B.C.
“If it were not for the hybrid Parliament provisions, I could not have safeguarded my health and kept my commitment to represent my constituents in Parliament,” he wrote in a recent op-ed.
Hedy Fry, another Liberal MP from B.C., told POLITICO she’s immunocompromised and has been staying home in Vancouver to avoid catching Covid. But Fry, 81, said it isn’t the same as being on the Hill, where she’s been an MP for nearly 30 years. “It has been difficult not to see [my] colleagues,” she said. “You can’t build relationships, either with your constituents or other people, when you’re always on a Zoom with them.”
Erskine-Smith said there’s likely a “distinction on generational grounds” when it comes to how MPs view remote work.
Tracking the physical presence of legislators in Parliament is challenging. Unlike with the American proxy voting system, data on remote voting in the House of Commons is not publicly available. Travel expense reports shed light on when MPs are in Ottawa, but they aren’t always up to date and can be difficult to interpret.
Still, there are other cases that stand out. Liberal MP Serge Cormier, who represents a riding in Atlantic Canada, appears to have spent roughly five sitting days in Ottawa between the fall of 2021 and the summer of 2022. He did not respond to multiple interview requests. Neither did Toronto-area Liberal MP Shaun Chen, who seems to have spent about 10 sitting days in the capital.
NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents a remote riding in northern Manitoba, also appears to have been in Ottawa for about 10 sitting days. She did not respond to POLITICO’s requests, though she has previously proclaimed that “a family friendly Parliament means a hybrid Parliament.”
The decision of some lawmakers to spend much less time in Ottawa raises other questions. Many of the MPs who’ve been more often in their home ridings, including Beech, Erskine-Smith, Doherty, Fry, Chen and Ashton, still claim expenses for apartments or condos in the nation’s capital, often charging between C$1,000 and C$2,500 a month.
Erskine-Smith said he’s been trying to sell his condo for more than a year. Beech said he needs to keep his home base in Ottawa, even though he’s spending less time there, so that his wife and kids have somewhere to stay when they join him.
But Doherty said it weighs on him. “It is definitely something that you think about all the time,” he said. “These dollars aren’t ours. These dollars are taxpayer dollars.”
The Liberal government must now decide whether to propose permanent changes to the rules governing the House of Commons. But in a possible indication of the direction it will take, Government House leader Mark Holland has spoken out forcefully in favor of hybrid provisions. He told the committee last fall about the impact that being a parliamentarian had on his personal life early in his career, including a failed marriage and a suicide attempt.
Divorce and mental health issues are all too common among federal politicians, Beech told POLITICO. “I am so happy to still be married to my wife… to be able to watch my kids grow up,” he said. “Hybrid needs to stay… the country will be better for it.”
Source of data and images: politico