Opinion: Digital committee meetings face technical and time limitations

Politicians may have to drop some of the partisanship to get the job done

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

MPs have taken to meeting online to conduct parliamentary committee meetings.

So far, they have proven challenging but workable.

Recent meetings of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food committee have highlighted the inconvenience.

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 only a predetermined amount of time – usually two hours – is set aside for the meeting, there is little room to run the meetings a little longer.

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That means more often than not, witnesses offering the MPs valuable testimony are not able to completely answer the questions.

And there is quite a bit of valuable information to be gained from witnesses. Agriculture and Agri-Food 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 already.

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.

Currently, MPs asking questions are given six minutes during what is called the “first round” of questioning – but that too 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.

Three minutes is hardly enough time for some MPs – particularly the long-winded ones – to ask a question, let alone get a thoughtful answer.

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

But 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.

While committee meetings are decidedly less partisan than other parliamentary or political affairs, it is not as if MPs forget what team they are playing for.

But if they spent less time trying to score partisan political points, they may have more time to gain valuable information.

Conservative members squabbling with witnesses over what should be considered “new” supports for agriculture does little to help farmers.

Liberals asking questions that are clearly aimed to score their party compliments or discount legitimate concerns does not help 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 contribute to 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.

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.

About the author

Reporter

D.C. Fraser

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.

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