Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota speaks during a virtual session of Parliament Tuesday April 28, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Virtual sittings have MPs doing things not allowed in House of Commons

Commons Speaker Anthony Rota has expressed concern about MPs using the virtual setting to break the rules

A stuffed deer head made a cameo appearance Tuesday during a virtual gathering of members of Parliament.

The deer head, replete with antlers, was mounted on the wall behind Conservative MP Blaine Calkins as he questioned the government on what he called its ”forced confiscation of law-abiding firearms owners’ property” — referring to the recently announced ban on military-style assault weapons.

Were MPs actually sitting in the House of Commons, they’d be banned from using any props or visual displays to illustrate or emphasize their remarks.

Commons Speaker Anthony Rota has expressed concern about MPs using the virtual setting to break the rules of decorum that normally apply.

“One issue that I think must be addressed has to be with the visual background in front of which members appear,” Rota told the procedure and House affairs committee Monday.

“Based on established practice, these backgrounds should be as neutral as possible, and consistent with the non-partisan environment of the chamber or committee.”

Rota did not give any example of backdrops that he believes have strayed from neutrality.

However, he may have had in mind the screen that British Columbia MP Paul Manly used as a backdrop during a virtual sitting last week. It was green in colour and Manly is, of course, a Green party MP.

Or he might have been thinking of the distracting painting of colourful turbans that served as a backdrop for Industry Minister Navdeep Bains last week.

In a letter to the chair of the House affairs committee, Rota elaborated on his view that despite the “exceptional circumstances” created by the pandemic, he believes “it is still necessary to maintain the authority and dignity of Parliament and its proceedings as much as possible.”

“The House has long-established rules for decorum that prohibit the use of displays, props and exhibits. The House also regulates how it is broadcast, to the point of specifying what shot angles to use when it is to be video recorded.

“Not only does this preserve the dignity of Parliament and its proceedings, but it also better ensures that what is debated and decided upon in the House remains more important than what is seen.”

Rota asked the committee to issue guidelines on ensuring decorum during virtual proceedings, which he could use when presiding over the twice-weekly virtual sittings of a modified House of Commons.

Until then, he said he’ll continue to advise MPs to ”refrain from including any background that is not consistent with the norms and standards followed within the parliamentary precinct.”

Rota has also chided MPs for not wearing business attire when participating in virtual proceedings.

However, Rota did experience some pushback Tuesday to the manner in which he’s attempting to preserve decorum.

After Conservative MP Mel Arnold interrupted Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan’s response to one of his questions, Rota reminded MPs they are not to interrupt when another person is speaking. He mused that he may start muting MPs who interrupt ”if it’s necessary.”

During a normal sitting of the House of Commons, only the microphone of the person speaking is turned on. Other MPs frequently heckle but their remarks are usually hard to make out. The Speaker will stop proceedings and call for order if the noise level is too high for the person speaking to be heard.

The virtual proceedings have eliminated the heckling. But Rota’s attempt to also prevent interruptions drew an objection Tuesday from Calgary Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

She noted that the virtual sittings during the COVID-19 pandemic are structured like committee meetings, which typically allow MPs more freedom to interrupt to cut off lengthy answers or to castigate a witness for not answering their questions.

Given that, Rempel Garner said Rota’s threat to mute MPs who interrupt “seems a little dictatorial.”

Rota denied having threatened to mute MPs. Rempel Garner retorted that he “actually did,” before Rota cut her off and said he’d look into the matter.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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