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Mute buttons and decorating tips: the House of Commons stumbles through an online session

The health minister could not be heard, so the Speaker of the House of Commons was compelled to intervene.

“Please unclick your mute,” Anthony Rota begged — a phrase that surely never crossed the lips of any of the other 36 occupants of the chair over the first 152 years of the House’s existence.

Here was history being made — the moment when the Parliament of Canada truly and fully entered the virtual era. With those immortal words committed to the official and permanent record (and after Health Minister Patty Hajdu successfully unmuted herself) the House proceeded with its first mass gathering via video conference.

It was, in a word, glitchy.

But that’s life in a pandemic for you: almost nothing is working perfectly right now.

Watch: The House of Commons has its first virtual session

Commons Speaker Anthony Rota guides MPs from all parties through the start of the first full virtual sitting of the House 3:13

However flawed, it was a serviceable meeting of nearly 300 MPs and a testament to the institution’s utility. In various ways, the virtual meeting on Tuesday afternoon may have even been an improvement on the real thing.

An MP’s pandemic must-have: loaded bookshelves

For one thing, the cameras offered glimpses of our elected representatives’ personal taste in living spaces, and showed us which MPs know their way around a camera.

Bill Morneau’s house looks just as nice as you’d imagine. Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs has a lovely kitchen. Maryam Monsef might want to hang a few more pictures on her walls. NDP MP Daniel Blaikie posed mysteriously in front of a white sheet.

Many MPs positioned themselves in front of Canadian flags; two of the Bloc Quebecois MPs opted for the blue and white of Quebec’s flag. Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains stood before a colourful image of turbans. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel sat near a handsome stone fireplace.

Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota speaks during a virtual session of Parliament on Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

If you enjoy home improvement and real estate shows for the chance to see how other people live, you might now find yourself newly intrigued by official business of parliamentary democracy.

The two most familiar with the art of broadcasting — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative MP Peter Kent, a former TV journalist — smartly framed themselves in front of large bookshelves. Conservative Brad Vis had a bookshelf behind him, but it was sadly bereft of books.

Watch: Trudeau struggles with a technical glitch

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined other MPs for the first virtual sitting of the House of Commons 1:29

Audio awkwardness

Hajdu left her laptop on her desk, forcing her to look down on everyone as she spoke. Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux apparently realized that he should elevate his screen — but then looked off-camera to his right to read his speech.

Most of the problems that emerged had to do with the audio. This was a Canadian political proceeding so it needed three separate audio feeds: one English, one French, one bilingual. Toggling between those channels seemed to cause some MPs to lose audio altogether.

The video images seemed mostly to come through in decent shape, although Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan was rather pixelated.

The bugs might be worked out in the days and weeks ahead — but it will be more interesting to see whether Wednesday’s generally restrained tone holds up or deteriorates as MPs get more comfortable with the new arrangement.

A shift in tone

Elsewhere, for instance, some prominent Conservatives have been rather vociferous lately in their criticism of the Liberal government. Words like “failure” and “idiotic” have been thrown around.

But, on Tuesday, Conservative MPs mostly stuck to asking questions. No one yelled or even raised their voice.

Maybe MPs understand that bellowing at a computer screen while sitting at home is bound to look unflattering. Or maybe there’s still a sense that the public isn’t much interested in partisan theatrics right now.

It is hard to imagine that MPs would have been able to resist the urge to fulminate if they had been in the same room together today. In that respect, it might be tempting to wish that they could remain apart forever.

But Tuesday’s session also laid out the broad political debate now taking shape around Canada’s experience with COVID-19.

The parties refine their pandemic messages

There are, and will be, any number of questions about the Liberal government’s handling of the crisis. Every aspect of the federal response is going to be tested for signs of weakness and anything the government could have done better is going to be catalogued. The Liberals have to be prepared to explain why they did what they did and hope that their actions hold up well when compared to other countries.

Meanwhile, a longer-term ideological fight is starting to take shape.

From the Conservative side of the virtual aisle, concerns were expressed about pandemic aid to students acting as a disincentive to work. From the Bloc Quebecois and Greens came demands that aid be refused to any business that is using some kind of foreign arrangement to avoid paying Canadian taxes (Denmark has introduced such a restriction).

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Health Canada wasn’t moving fast enough to approve new applications to manufacture testing kits, calling it another “example of government reacting very, very slowly and [not being able to] keep up with entrepreneurs and the private sector.”

Watch: Scheer goes after government’s pandemic response

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer questioned the Prime Minister for the allotted five minutes during the first virtual House of Commons. 5:31

Scheer, who took several days to decide whether to condemn a Conservative backbencher’s comments about Dr. Theresa Tam’s loyalties, might want to be careful about criticizing anyone’s ability to respond quickly. But he is no doubt eager right now to find examples of government inefficiency.

Meanwhile, the NDP’s Don Davies was invoking Tommy Douglas and talking in lofty terms about the need to come out of this crisis with a new commitment to expanding Canada’s public services.

The Conservatives see a massive expansion of public services and spending and want Canadians to view it with misgivings. The New Democrats see an opportunity to make a case for new permanent spending. The Liberals presumably will end up somewhere in the middle.

It might not be possible to engage fully in that debate until things are back to something like normal.

In the meantime, in fits and starts, the work of politics carries on. The politicians are learning how and when to unmute their partisan selves.

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