John Ivison: Committee overstepped its authority with House of Commons vaccine mandate

What the Liberal-dominated Board does not do is make decisions on fundamental constitutional questions. Yet that is what it has just done

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Under the Parliament of Canada Act, the Board of Internal Economy is responsible for financial and administrative matters that concern the House of Commons.


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Typically, the eight MPs from all parties who make up the Board, plus the Speaker of the House who chairs it, haggle over per diems (currently $112.15 a day), mileage (54.80 per km) and members’ office budgets ($374,200 a year).

What the Liberal-dominated Board does not do is make decisions on fundamental constitutional questions.

Yet that is what it has just done.

Late on Tuesday, when perhaps he thought fewer people might notice, Speaker Anthony Rota put out a statement on behalf of the Board saying that from November 22 anyone inside the House of Commons precinct must be fully vaccinated, including MPs, their staff, journalists and administrative employees. The only exception would be for those with a “medical contraindication,” for whom a recent negative COVID antigen test would suffice.


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The Board has clearly overstepped its jurisdiction.

Retired House of Commons procedural clerk B. Thomas Hall pointed out that the Board is the employer of House of Commons personnel under the Parliamentary Employment of Staff Relations Act, which suggests there is no question it has authority over staff on the House of Commons side of Parliament.

But it is equally clear that the Board has no jurisdiction when it comes to MPs, whose privilege to fulfill their parliamentary duties is a constitutional matter.

Steve Chaplin was the legal counsel for the House of Commons for 15 years. He said the only body that can determine whether MPs should enjoy unimpeded access is the entire House itself.


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“There is no business or jurisdiction for the Board to interfere with the proceedings in the House, including members’ attendance and participation,” he said. “Privileges are constitutional and, at the end of the day, the independence of the House to carry out its functions and how this is done is for the House to decide.”

For health reasons, political gamesmanship, or a combination of both, the four Liberals, one Bloc and one NDP MP on the Board pushed for mandatory vaccination in the Commons’ precinct ahead of the House returning at the end of November. Decisions are normally by consensus but that does not seem to be the case here.

Blake Richards, one of two Conservatives on the Board, said he could not discuss what happened at the in camera meeting but said his party does not agree to “seven MPs meeting in secret to decide which of the 338 MPs just elected by Canadians can enter the House of Commons to represent their constituents.”


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You can argue – and it’s a point with which I have some sympathy – that our politicians should set an example by getting themselves vaccinated. You can also argue that nobody should be forced to lose their job because of their medical status – a point with which I also have some sympathy. What you can’t argue is that vaccine mandates work when it comes to increasing vaccination levels. The evidence from countries like France is stark. My objection is not with the decision but the sneaky way it was made.

Richards said his party agrees that vaccines are the most important tool to get us out of the pandemic. But the Conservatives have allowed themselves to be beaten with this political wedge for too long by continuing to insist on giving employees the option of vaccination or a recent negative rapid test result. Just get the jab.


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In the unlikely event that a dozen or more Conservatives find their access restricted, the Liberals might find themselves with a de facto majority government

One Conservative MP said there are likely only three members of caucus who are not yet vaccinated and one of them, Dean Allison, is said to have a medical exemption. But there is a strong feeling, even among MPs who are vaccinated, that mandatory vaccination is an infringement on freedom of movement and the constitutional rights of Canadians. That is not an argument that is easily dismissed. It is a thorny issue on which many people are conflicted.

The Board’s decision may have postponed a confrontation between Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, and his critics within his own party who feel he has been too politically expedient on other issues.

He can now blame the Board for taking a hard line on vaccinations, giving him more time to re-organize his office and his front bench ahead of Parliament’s return next month. The leader and his team were huddled in Wakefield, Que., last week to plan changes aimed at making the party more electable in the suburbs of Canada’s big cities. One change being contemplated is said to be the elevation of health critic Michelle Rempel Garner into a more senior post.


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But if O’Toole is quietly satisfied that the vaccination issue has been taken out of his hands, he should continue to voice his outrage at the way it was done.

The tail is wagging the dog. Even if the Speaker recognizes a prima facie question of privilege in the House, the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and NDP have made it clear they will support mandatory vaccination in any vote and the Board’s decision will stand.

If Conservative MPs are barred from entry into the House (presuming they are able to get to Ottawa in the first place, given flight restrictions), it remains unclear how the rights of their constituents to be heard will be respected. The Bloc and Conservatives have said they do not want the hybrid parliament to continue.

In the unlikely event that a dozen or more Conservatives find their access restricted, the Liberals might find themselves with a de facto majority government.

This is a matter that should have been put to the entire House in the form of a motion that set out its views.

Are MPs really comfortable that the body set up to handle human resource and administrative matters has bypassed the constitutional role of the House and made a consequential decision on its behalf?

“We have a constitution. It doesn’t work that way,” said Chaplin.

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