House of Commons vaccine rule puts O’Toole in sticky position
The House of Commons is a workplace like no other. But the sandstone walls of Parliament are not immune to the reality of a global pandemic.
Thus, sooner or later, the House was going to be confronted with the same questions which are now confronted by all the other institutions and establishments in the country: should it be required that its occupants be vaccinated and what could be the consequences of such a requirement.
But because this is the House of Commons, the vaccine tenure has become a test of political leadership – especially for Conservative leader Erin O’Toole.
The House Board of Internal Economy – an all-party steering committee chaired by the Speaker – set the record straight this week with its decision to bar anyone associated with the House from entering the parliamentary precinct in less to be vaccinated – including MPs.
There is some debate as to whether the board has the power to issue such an order on its own, but questions about the process are unlikely to change the end result. While the Liberals, the Bloc QuÃ©bÃ©cois, the NDP and the Greens are all in favor of a vaccination mandate, a similar order is sure to pass an entire House vote.
Collective privilege versus individual privilege
It may seem problematic to tell an MP that he cannot sit in the House and such actions should be extremely rare. But Steven Chaplin, a former lawyer in the House of Commons Law Clerk’s Office, said in a blog post last week that “the privilege of participation belongs to the House and not to the individual Member.”
“The purpose of parliamentary privilege is to protect each house of Parliament so that it can conduct its business without threats from outside the House,” wrote Chaplin. “It is up to the House to exercise its privileges in the manner it deems best for itself and for its members collectively.”
Being elected to the House of Commons is a special honor and a responsibility. But each chamber of Parliament controls its own internal affairs and composition, with the power to suspend or even expel a member (the power to expel has only been used four times, most recently in 1947).
An unvaccinated MP might argue that being banned from the House is unfair to him or his constituents. Any other Member could reasonably argue that the presence of an unvaccinated limb threatens their health and safety.
“When a member’s actions threaten the whole with the potential to deprive it of the ability to perform its constitutional functions, the whole has a responsibility to protect itself and [its] constitutional role, âwrote Chaplin.
How opposed are the Conservatives to the vaccine rule?
A vaccine mandate for the House of Commons would be less controversial if there was unanimous support among MPs to impose such a requirement. Instead, like almost everything in the House, debate is moving away from parties – in this case, the Conservatives are against it.
The extent of this conservative opposition is difficult to measure.
Unlike the leaders of other major parties, O’Toole did not demand that Conservative candidates be vaccinated during this fall’s election campaign. The party was not available when asked to confirm how many of its MPs have been vaccinated.
After the Board of Internal Economy rendered its decision, Conservative MP Blake Richards – a member of that committee – released a statement saying, “We cannot allow seven MPs to meet in secret to decide which of the 338 MPs, any just elected by Canadians, can enter the House of Commons to represent their constituents.
Later in an interview with TVO AgendaO’Toole said his party would “respect” the decision.
But on Friday, a spokesperson for O’Toole said the Tories did not believe the board had the power to impose a ban and that such a move “would infringe the right of a member of sit in the House of Commons â.
Talk to AgendaO’Toole reconsidered his broader stance on vaccine mandates in general – that it is wrong to divide people and that it is better to avoid confrontation by finding compromises. During this fall’s campaign, O’Toole argued that the rapid tests could cover officials or travelers who refuse to be vaccinated.
WATCH: Erin O’Toole is asked about the campaign of a partially vaccinated candidate at a retirement home
Opinions differ on whether this is an acceptable compromise – rapid tests won’t detect all infections – but Conservatives are resisting an option that could allow unvaccinated MPs to participate in parliamentary deliberations.
In the last legislature, MEPs adopted rules for âhybridâ sessions in which some MEPs participated remotely via video. Allowing unvaccinated MPs to participate virtually might be a reasonable compromise now.
But the Conservative Party was not in favor of the hybrid arrangement before the election and is now insisting that Parliament return to “normal function”.
Perhaps the Conservatives are so apprehensive about âvirtualâ democracy that they consider a compromise impossible on this point. Maybe O’Toole doesn’t like the idea of ââa number of unvaccinated Tory MPs appearing via a video stream. Perhaps he would not be unhappy if it was the Board of Internal Economy – and not him – who were forcing all Conservative members to be vaccinated.
O’Toole surely knows that if a number of Conservative MPs do not show up with proof of vaccination or valid medical exemptions when Parliament returns on November 22, he will ultimately have to answer for it.
And given the shared expectations around immunization that increasingly cover Canadian society – from hospitals to restaurants to sporting events – most voters are unlikely to blame the Board of Internal Economy or the House of Commons if an unvaccinated member is unable to take his place next month.