OTTAWA — MPs should be "incentivized" to procreate, a Liberal MP said, as a new report Wednesday suggested minor changes to make Parliament family-friendly and passed up recommending a four-day schedule for now.
Toronto MP Arif Virani, 44, told The Huffington Post Canada that balancing family life with the job of a member of Parliament has proved to be more challenging than he expected.
Virani, who represents the riding of Parkdale—High Park, has two young children, Zakir, 5, and Nitin, 2, who remain with their mother during the week while he shuttles back and forth each weekend from Ottawa, leaving Friday afternoon and returning Monday mornings.
Liberal MP Arif Virani speaks in the House of Commons on Friday April 22, 2016 in Ottawa. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
It's an "incredibly hard" and "not ideal" situation, Virani said.
"Everyone prepares you for how to win a nomination and win an election, but no one prepares you for how to be an MP, really," he said.
"It's a great job, don't get me wrong, but it's a demanding job."
Balancing family duties and work obligations is no easy task, especially for new MPs and those with young families.
A new parliamentary committee report, tabled Wednesday, recommended some incremental ways to make the Commons more inclusive, efficient and family-friendly but it didn't go as far as some MPs wanted.
No agreement on eliminating Friday sittings
The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs said it couldn't come to an agreement on eliminating Friday sittings, and by extension increasing sitting hours Monday through Thursday, and it had no recommendations to make on electronic voting in the chamber. It said it may later study proxy voting to allow those who are sick or unable to be in Ottawa to cast a vote in the chamber.
Last March, Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc told reporters Parliament should be modernized to encourage parents of young children to run for office, and he hoped have changes in place by the fall.
Personally, LeBlanc said, he favours shutting down the Commons on Friday, because those 4.5 hours of sittings "don't offer a maximum use of an MP's time."
He also suggested doing away with a rule that essentially prevents MPs from going home to have dinner with their families in Ottawa or to meetings off Parliament Hill for fear a procedural motion could be made and votes called in the House with less than half an hour's notice.
Dominic LeBlanc speaks at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 11, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
The committee made several unanimous recommendations that could help those with families plan their schedules a bit better. They suggested holding votes, whenever possible, right after question period, rather than in the evenings — except for Thursdays when afternoon votes often disrupt MPs' travel arrangements back to their ridings.
The committee also recommended tabling the House of Commons calendar six months ahead of time so MPs could plan in advance and suggested avoiding long sitting blocks — such as five weeks — in Ottawa that are "not conducive to productive parliamentary work."
It also tasked the Commons information security branch with finding a way for family members and staff to access any changes in an MP's mobile electronic calendar. And it asked the governing body of the Commons, the Board of Internal Economy, to be a little less transparent on the use of an MP's travel points because "family members have felt reluctant, if not discouraged, from making use of a travel point to visit a spouse or parent." MPs are allowed to share their travel points with family members to help encourage family reunification.
The committee announced that it will further study the idea of a parental leave or family leave to help provide flexibility to members in the late stages of pregnancy, to new mothers or parents or to those who serve as primary caregivers.
MPs do not pay into the employment insurance system and are excluded from receiving its benefits.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau laughs as he poses with local candidate Arif Virani and his son during a campaign stop at a bar Tuesday, October 13, 2015 in Toronto. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/CP)
Virani said he hoped Friday sittings would be eliminated, electronic voting adopted, and a new parental-leave benefit plan brought in so MPs could spend time with their young children.
"I think if you had access to parental leave, then maybe that would be an incentive to get on with the business of procreating, which is the type of thing a lot of people would like to do but they are not able to because they have to put their entire personal life on hold while they are getting on with the business of being a parliamentarian," he told HuffPost this week.
Some young professionals may shy away from politics because the compensation may be lower than what they are receiving in the private sector, Virani said, but he suggested that they may also decline offers to run because they feel they can't do the job while they're raising children.
When that happens, he said, a very talented cohort of Canadians is completely excluded.
'We work seven days a week'
Virani, a new MP, told HuffPost he doesn't understand why the House sits on Friday. As a parliamentary secretary to the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, Virani has to be in the Commons on Fridays to answer questions on the minister's behalf, something he said he enjoys and would miss.
Instead of being with his family and his constituents, Virani spends four out of every five Fridays in Ottawa, while 70 per cent of his colleague are back home, or on their way there.
Politicians will, of course, make "political hay" of the issue if Friday sittings are cancelled, he said. But he is aghast at the statements by some opposition colleagues who argue that parliamentarians should work five days a week like most other Canadians.
"That is a fallacious argument," he told HuffPost over a sandwich grabbed for dinner in the parliamentary cafeteria between votes on Monday. "We work seven days a week. If the Canadian public thinks that when we are not in Ottawa, we are not working, then I guess we are only working for a 127 sitting days, because that's the only time we're here."
Time to modernize how MPs vote
Virani also thinks Parliament should move into the 21st century and vote electronically. "If you speed up the manner of voting, you can save time and allow us to do other work," he said.
"People elected us on the basis of that kind of demographic change, that kind of generational shift, [and] that comes with the duty to reflect the fact that the chamber should also embody some of those ideals or ideas that some of the younger, fresher people are presenting.
"One of the things we look at is … the way things have been done for 30 years and … we say, 'Why are you doing it that way?"
For some MPs, though, the current system generally works well, and eliminating Friday sittings by, for example, extending sitting hours to midnight from Monday to Thursday, would mean a more difficult work-life balance.
Conservative MP Ben Lobb speaks in the House of Commons in 2014. (Photo: Facebook)
Conservative MP Ben Lobb, a new father also struggling with the work-life balance, is one of several Conservative MPs with young children. His son, Calvin, is nine months old, and his spouse lives with him in Ottawa while on maternity leave, so he has a different set of considerations than Virani's.
Lobb, who has been an MP since 2008, sees no problems with Friday sittings. He'd rather have shorter hours Monday to Friday so he can be with his son for bedtime.
The MP for Huron—Bruce praised the recent change of scheduling votes right after question period, rather than late in the evening.
"That's one thing I hope will be in there," he told HuffPost, before the report as tabled.
"I know some members have talked about getting rid of Friday, but I don't think that's going to make a big difference."
"Canadians expect that when the House is sitting, it sits for five days."
— Tory MP Ben Lobb
As a backbencher, Lobb sees the value of the 4.5 hours of sitting on Fridays. Not only is there another question period and a chance to hold the government's feet to the fire, but it's also one additional day for MPs to discuss private members' business — legislation that doesn't emanate from the government and which all MPs, with the exceptions of ministers and parliamentary secretaries, can propose.
Getting rid of Friday sittings would mean one less day of debate, and fewer chances that a backbencher's bill could be referred to committee for further study and passage into law, Lobb noted.
"For an opposition member, that is a pretty important thing," he said. "Canadians expect that when the House is sitting, it sits for five days."
Lobb notes that if House hours are extended, the staff will have to become shift workers and there will be increased security costs. Marc Bosc, the acting clerk of the House of Commons, suggested, however, that eliminating a day or adding hours would have "little impact" on operational cost.
"I think the way we are doing it now is a good way and has been in place for as long as it has been around."
'More consistent weeks' needed
Lobb travels back to his riding as best he can. He often leaves on Friday and returns on Sunday, but that may change when his wife returns to work. His current journey takes him 4.5 to 6.5 hours each way.
What would be helpful, he said, is for the House schedule to be organized in more consistent blocks of weeks so MPs could focus their energy uninterrupted in Ottawa and then go to their ridings and focus their energy for several weeks at a time, he said.
"I'm not advocating for more time in Ottawa or more time in the constituency, just … more consistent weeks," he said.
"If you decided in your life that you wanted to bring a little child into this world, you owe that child your time and your care, right? The people voted you in, and you owe it to them to do the best job you can for them. So that requires you to get really smart and really intelligent about how to manage your time."
NDP MP Christine Moore holds her daughter Daphnee just outside the House of Commons,on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, March 8, 2016. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)
Lobb praised NDP MP Christine Moore, who has a daughter the same age as his son. Moore recently led the charge to have an on-call nanny service on the Hill — which MPs pay for out of their own pocket.
The child care service was announced to MPs on Monday — two days before the committee's report suggesting it be established.
Less than a week after giving birth last fall, Moore was back on the campaign trail. She has become a champion for young mothers in the Commons, arguing in favour of paternity leave, electronic voting for those on sick leave and longer sitting weeks in Ottawa to help cut down on travel time.
"I think Christine Moore is a shining example of a mom, and an MP and does a pretty damn good job of balancing her time," Lobb said.
He also mentioned Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who has three kids, and announced to her staff that she intends to leave the office most days at 5:30 pm, go off line to have dinner with her family, and resume her duties about 8 p.m.
"She did he best thing for her, her job, her family and her geography, and I respect that. And I think each MP has to do that," he said.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna speaks with her son before a swearing in ceremony Wednesday Nov.4, 2015. (Photo: Justin Tang/CP)
And it's not just members with young children, Lobb noted. Many other MPs have parents who rely on them for care.
"Maybe they don't live with them, but they are in a nursing home with doctors appointments. Even if they are MPs, they are still sons and daughters, and they still have a responsibility to their parents…. So there is no one answer. There is really 338 answers for each one.
"I think you just have to do what is best for you and your family. That's probably the best way to sum it up."
Liberal MP Larry Bagnell, the chair of the committee studying ways to make the Commons more family friendly, acknowledged that there are strong disagreements between MPs on major issues.
His committee studied legislatures across the country, as well as in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden, and heard from 29 witnesses — unions, staff of MPs, MPs with children, former MPs who had young children but left Parliament because of the ensuing difficulties, a group that wants to increase women's participation in politics, he said.
This is an interim report, the Liberal MP from the Yukon cautioned.
Committee may study heckling, decorum
"We're only going to do some recommendations on things that weren't huge and that we could agree on early. And things that we couldn't, we put forward for further study."
For example, the committee may study heckling and decorum in the House of Commons and further discuss a gender-sensitive safety audit it hopes the Board of Internal Economy conducts, relating to panic buttons stationed outside the parliamentary precinct, gender-neutral toilets and more change tables where need be.
Bagnell, an MP from 2000 to 2011 but out of the House for one term before winning re-election again last fall, told HuffPost he learned a lot of interesting things during the committee's study.
"I didn't know that Australia and England have two houses basically, so they can give more MPs a chance to speak, they can speed up the work and not have to sit as long.
"I didn't know that Sweden voted electronically, where you push a button and they do in 30 seconds what we do in 10 minutes.
"I didn't know that Sweden voted electronically, where you push a button and they do in 30 seconds what we do in 10 minutes."
— Liberal MP Larry Bagnell
"I didn't know that Sweden didn't allow ministers in [the legislature] and that ministers are given an MP for their riding and that MP does debates and votes and so the minister can actually do a good job of being a minister, full time. And in Sweden as well, I think they only meet Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday."
"I was a bit surprised that we sit longer than a lot of parliaments, in Canada and around the world," he added. "There is certainly a lot of work to do, so if you take away Fridays, there is a trade-off — you have to pick up that work somewhere, and then that affects other people."
Bagnell said he's intrigued by the idea of two lower houses and the committee may revisit the topic later.
David Natzler, clerk of the British House of Commons, told the committee they've had an "alternate chamber," known as Westminster Hall, since 1999 that is based on the Australian example.
The clerk of the Australian House of Representatives, David Elder, testified that country has had two chambers since 1994. The Federation Chamber is essentially a parallel debating chamber, where legislation can't be introduced or voted on. It simply considers matters sent to it by the House of Representatives, sits about a third of the same time and, as the committee's report concluded, relieves time pressures in the main chamber.
Second chamber needed?
Elder said the Australian House of Representatives sits about 70 days a year — four days a week for 18 to 20 weeks in two-week blocks, with some longer breaks in between.
The British House of Commons sits about 150 days over 34 sitting weeks, mostly from Monday through Thursday.
The New Zealand House of Representatives sits about 90 days over 30 sitting weeks, and only on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays.
In contrast, the Canadian House of Commons sits five days a week — about 135 sitting days a year over 26 weeks.
Should the House decide to have a second chamber, Bagnell noted, the infrastructure will soon exist. The House is scheduled to move into temporary digs in the West Block while the current chamber undergoes a renovation in the Centre Block. When that's complete, Canada could have two functioning lower houses pretty easily, he said.
Bagnell told HuffPost there is no recommendation on electronic voting because there was no consensus. "Some people really felt that it was important to stand up and cast your vote," he said.
The case for standing up instead
He also acknowledged a less-often-discussed truth.
Sometimes, MPs don't really know what they are voting for and standing up helps members' make up their mind.
"In private members' business, maybe it's something you don't know anything about but you know someone who does, who you trust, and so if they vote before you that helps you, and in electronic voting you wouldn't have that," he said.
Bagnell also noted his surprise on learning that party whips in New Zealand occasionally vote on behalf of the entire caucus.
"You don't even need the people in there, you just need the four whips who say this party is voting for this, this party is voting for that," he said, laughing.
"I said we could tell our press that and they would say, ‘Why are we paying the rest of you?'"
There are a lot of big ideas to discuss, but the Liberal chair said the point is to have an inclusive Parliament that represents all demographics.
"One of our MPs has six kids. If you didn't have [them], then you wouldn't have their concerns and their challenges in life represented in Parliament, so that's why we are trying to make it more accessible and remove barriers that might [discourage] them from running for office," he said.
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