Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond: I want to thank my colleagues from all groups who have participated in the debate so far. I found the opinions that were shared very interesting.
Senators talked about the fact that expenditures of around $400,000 were not approved in a transparent manner because the process was done in camera. Today, Canadians know that it will cost $400,000, and I am not complaining. I think it is a good thing.
I understand, however, why Senator Plett responded to my colleague Senator Forest’s question by saying that this is not a matter of cost, but a matter of principle. If we save hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses, plane tickets, and restaurant and hotel bills because some senators prefer to stay home for health reasons, then that should be taken into consideration. But I understand that, in the end, those savings are not what is important. Cost is not a determining factor.
Internet access is an important factor. I am very aware of that, since Senator Lovelace Nicholas lives in a part of New Brunswick where adequate internet services are not available. It is incredible that in a country as rich and developed as ours, people are still being treated as second-class citizens when it comes to internet services, despite promises made by the federal and provincial governments. This is a real problem. The fact that internet is not available everywhere should be taken into consideration in a broader debate. As Senator Plett said in response to Senator Forest’s questions, at the end of the day, what is at stake here is not just a matter of principle, it is a fundamental matter of principle about what kind of Parliament we want and what kind of democracy we want.
In my opinion, it is important for the Senate to reclaim its role as a chamber of sober second thought and not be hastily called back on Monday to pass a bill on Thursday. Our committees must be able to meet to study bills and hear witnesses. Unfortunately, since March, this role has been limited. We heard witnesses in Committee of the Whole, but they were always ministers or government representatives who came to present only one perspective, the government’s perspective. I would have liked to hear from business and union representatives. I would have liked to hear from health care stakeholders. That opportunity was taken away from us.
I also realize that several of my colleagues are older than I am, and I myself am no longer that young. I know that sometimes having to travel across the entire country to come here puts them at risk. These senators must decide if they want to take that risk to participate in our democracy. The question we should ask ourselves is, can we balance their participation in our democracy with reducing the risks they must take? We must fulfil our democratic duties and, to the extent possible, go back to working in our usual manner. That means holding hybrid sittings so that senators with health issues do not have to choose between staying at home, which means not fulfilling their duties, and taking a big risk by coming here.
Legislation passed not too long ago now allows employees to stay home to avoid being unnecessarily exposed to risk. Why would we force our colleagues to be exposed to risk? Let’s be logical here.
This motion from the Government Representative in the Senate would allow us to resume our important duties and allow everyone to participate, either in person or by video conference. I think this is a compromise and a highly satisfactory arrangement. Some colleagues may lose their internet connection during a debate, or they may miss part of my speech and lose sleep for a few days. However, I think our privileges need to be interpreted realistically to take the unique context of the pandemic into account.
For these reasons, I will not hesitate to support the motion of the Government Representative in the Senate.