Exploring Virtual Parliament – How we conduct our duties in a pandemic

by Elizabeth May | May 4, 2020 8:57 am

Memo for PROC

From Elizabeth May, MP

Exploring Virtual Parliament – How we conduct our duties in a pandemic

May 4, 2020

 

PROC’s mandate for this study: The House of Commons has instructed the committee to study ways in which members can fulfill their parliamentary duties while the House stands adjourned on account of public health concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the temporary modification of certain procedures, sittings in alternate locations and technological solutions including a virtual Parliament

 

First, let me once again express my deep appreciation to all members of this committee.  Thank you for allowing me to ask questions from time to time and to submit some thoughts.  I think the work and study has shown an impressive spirit of collaboration to find answers to thorny and unprecedented questions, in a challenging context, with very little time.

I think PROC’s work will be aided by creating a clear framework; a hierarchy of priorities based on a shared understanding.

The following propositions should meet with a consensus of all parties and MPs:

  1. Meeting in person, as the House of Commons has since 1867, is vastly  preferable to meetings at a distance mediated through imperfect technologies;

  2. If not for a public health crisis, PROC would not be conducting this study.

 

Once it is clear that there is little ground to be gained by pointing out deficiencies in technology and agree on the general preference for meeting in person, but for the public health emergency, the next hierarchy of needs and priorities should start founded in principles of parliamentary democracy.

 

What are the key functions of parliament necessary in a pandemic?

The primary reason to meet is to ensure that the government is held accountable;

The second reason is to pass legislation to respond to the COVID19 emergency;

The third reason is to conduct the regular business of the House of Commons in studying and passing legislation unrelated to the pandemic.

 

These priorities of our duties should then be examined to see what can be managed through remote or distance gatherings and which require substantial overhaul of our rules to be managed in a pandemic.

 

  1. Holding the government to account

Holding the government to account is the function of Question Period. It is entirely amendable to being moved to a virtual platform. Of the three classes of duties listed above, Question Period is the most suited to virtual meetings.

Due to Canada’s practice (unknown anywhere else within the Commonwealth nations practicing Westminster Parliamentary democracy) of having Opposition party whips provide a list of questioners, in order, to the Speaker, the Speaker does not have to scan the “room” to see which MP catches his eye.

The only uncertainty is, not in recognizing the questioner, but in identifying which Minister will reply.

As Speaker Rota mentioned, the use of five minute rounds is actually improving on our normal 35 second rounds. As a number of journalists have observed (and I strongly agree) the absence of heckling on zoom is a plus.  It violates our Standing Rules whenever a member is interrupted or when language is disrespectful. In this context, the virtual gatherings are an improvement.

Both virtually and in person the new questioning format works well.

The deficiency in equitable rights of participation is based in the insistence of holding one day a week in person.  The physical meetings inevitably leave many members unable to participate. The some members “in”-other members “out” approach is a potential (if not de facto) violation of parliamentary privilege.

From the evidence of Mathew Hamlyn, (House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) we heard that the Speaker in the Palace of Westminster had been very concerned about this aspect of scaled down parliament.  That is why their Parliament opted for the “hybrid model.”

The hybrid model allows MPs to be physically in the chamber interacting with MPs participating virtually.

Because there are no votes in Question Period, the ability to participate at a distance is of the same quality and effectiveness as attending in person.  Members participating in person and members appearing on large video screens participate equally. Privilege is perfectly preserved without undue pressure on members from areas remote from Ottawa to make the trip to exercise our rights and fulfill our duties. Those who have inadequate home internet can certainly travel to a better location within their own province without having to come all the way to Ottawa to participate.

I note that I have been emailing with a Green Party colleague, the Member of Parliament for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas.  She conveyed that it is generally the government ministers who attend in person.  They are more likely to have stayed in London to work with their departmental teams – even at a distance.  That certainly makes it easy for the Speaker to see which minister is answering the question.

I recommend PROC support this hybrid model.

 

  1. Passing legislation to respond to the COVID19 emergency

 

Due to our current, archaic requirement for in person voting, standing at our desks, voting of all MPs cannot take place in a pandemic.

 

Yet, we have managed, admirably through negotiation and unanimous consent, to pass, on an accelerated basis, three key bills to provide emergency supports.

Clearly, this can only work for those pieces of legislation for which partisanship can be set aside.

It seems to be the case that this degree of cooperation, laudable as it is, may be coming to an end.

 

  1. Regular business of the House of Commons in studying and passing legislation unrelated to the pandemic

 

It is simply not possible to imagine how we can take up other pressing matters, unrelated to the COVID19 emergency, with our current Standing Orders.

We can convene committees to study legislation and we can hear from witnesses.

Voting in person is the key obstacle.  As I mentioned today, I found it fascinating that electronic voting at the members’ desks is in place in the European parliament and the parliaments of Wales and Scotland.  Even in the Palace of Westminster, members are not at their desks, but pass through different corridors where House officers record the members’ votes on an iPad, out of the public eye.   Canada’s parliament has the most archaic form of voting of them all.

It does not take too much imagination to see Canadian MPs able to vote from home, electronically, subject to verification of identity.

 

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