Digital committee meetings face technical, time limitations

Our members of Parliament should be applauded for their efforts to practise democracy during these trying times.

To ensure social distancing remains in place, MPs have taken to meeting online over video chats to conduct parliamentary committee meetings.

So far, they have proven challenging but workable.

Recent meetings of the standing committee on agriculture and agri-food have shown just how inconvenient the current practice is.

There are regular technical problems, usually related to translations. Witnesses or MPs will be in the middle of a question or answer, only to be cut off because their translation is not working, or their feed was breaking up.

Because only a pre-determined amount of time — usually two hours — is set-aside for the meeting, there is little room to run the meetings a little longer to accommodate the challenges.

That means more often than not, witnesses offering MPs valuable testimony on how the pandemic is impacting their sector are not able to completely answer the questions being asked of them.

There is quite a bit of valuable information to be gained from witnesses. Agriculture Minister Marie Claude Bibeau, her deputy ministers, as well as representatives from organizations including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and Canadian Pork Council have all appeared.

Quite regularly, someone will be in the middle of a sentence, only to be told their time is up.

Recognizing this is a challenge, the committee members are attempting to find a solution. They’ve shortened the time allowed for a witness’s opening statement from 10 minutes to seven minutes, with some discussion to dropping it down to five.

That would allow less time for witnesses to express their rehearsed thoughts, but more time for MPs to question witnesses about specific topics.

Currently, MPs asking questions are given six minutes during what is called the “first round” of questioning, but that may soon be limited to five minutes.

The second round of questioning is determined in part by how much time is left over from round one, but because of the regular technical interruptions, there have been instances where MPs are given less than three minutes to question a witness.

Three minutes is hardly enough time for some to ask a question, let alone leave enough time for a thoughtful answer.

Most unfortunate about the current format is the lack of an easy solution.

As a regular observer of the proceedings, I can think of one that will likely never be discussed by the members on the committee: lose some of the partisanship.

If MPs spent less time trying to score partisan political points, they may have more time to gain valuable information from the witnesses.

Conservative members squabbling with witnesses over what should be considered “new” supports for agriculture and what should not does little to help farmers.

Liberals asking questions to score their party compliments or discount legitimate concerns does not help the sector much either.

Members from both of those parties should learn from their colleagues representing the smaller parties.

The Bloc Quebecois member focuses solely on issues only relevant to Quebec (i.e. dairy), which does little to inform the public or legislators about what is needed from the federal government to help the sector across the country.

The NDP member is sometimes guilty of taking too much time focusing on secondary issues, such as labour.

But overall, they are typically the ones asking the most relevant questions of witnesses.

Given the challenges of meeting digitally, more of that is needed.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier Farm Media’s Ottawa correspondent. Reach out to him by emailing dfraser@farmmedia.com.

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