Legislating in a Virtual Space
Since the end of March, the Parliament of Canada has invested in technology to enable weekly virtual meetings to take place for a small number of chosen committees. These include the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, which have been reconvened digitally to receive evidence related to the Government's Covid-19 response. On 11 April, a motion was unanimously adopted in the House for several other committees, including the Standing Committees on Government Operations and Estimates, to meet remotely via video-conferencing software to consider evidence in relation to the pandemic.
The 87 lawmakers of the People's Majilis have been using Microsoft 365 to debate, legislate and cast votes. The legislature chose to adopt the software in January 2019 to increase collaboration, due in part to its security features. On 30 March, legislators agreed to make a full transition to Microsoft Teams to enable the continued functioning of sessions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 71 lawmakers joined the session from their respective homes, which was also broadcast on television in real time. The MPs debated a motion on the Government’s proposed financial support programme as the country prepares for the economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to officials, an 'online parliament' rehearsal was held on the preceding Saturday to help members get accustomed to the software and to tackle any technical issues.
On 15 May, the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa marked its 100th virtual meeting of its oversight committees, a key milestone which - according to a parliamentary statement - 'demonstrates the resilience, tenacity and agility of the Legislature’s systems to fulfil its Constitutional obligations even under difficult conditions'. Since April, committees from both Houses have been meeting remotely, with priority given to committees conducting oversight of government's Covid-19 response and its implementation of social distancing restrictions under the National State of Disaster Act. These committees have been meeting virtually using online video platforms to hold the Executive to account on timely, critical issues including the government's economic stimulus package, the provision of PPE, ensuring safe working conditions, the transportation of goods, and gender-based violence.
New Opportunities for Voting
On 22 April, the House of Commons issued temporary orders to put in place a remote voting system. This system was based on the existing MemberHub platform, used for the remote tabling of questions and motions by MPs and accredited staff. Access to the system was via a single sign-on with multi-factor authentication. Members were able to receive notifications of remote divisions through a number of channels provided by the system and also receive alerts from party whips.
The move to digital voting as part of a 'hybrid parliament' has been a controversial topic amongst MPs. Some believe that hybrid parliaments do not allow MPs to properly hold the government to account, however others say physical voting puts vulnerable and BAME politicians at risk. At the UK Government’s instigation, the House of Commons voted along party lines to end hybrid proceeding and remote divisions on 20 May 2020 and revert back to voting in lobbies. On 2 June, members returned to vote on a proposal to allow MP's to vote remotely during the pandemic. Standing two metres apart, MP's queued up outside the Commons chamber to observe social distancing, before walking to the Speaker's chair to say their name and which way they were voting. Reactions to this new method have been varied.
Members of the Australian Federal Parliament have been practising social distancing measures and adhering to a policy of restricted member attendance in the Chamber. On 12 May, the Speaker of the House of Representatives made two announcements on the conduct of chamber divisions moving forward. Firstly, he announced his intention to maintain a new system of phrasing questions put to vote in the negative to avoid large numbers of people crossing the chamber. Secondly, he acknowledged that due to high numbers of absent members, parliamentary ‘pairing’ (where An MP will be paired with another MP from an opposing party with both agreeing not to vote in a division) would be necessary and commonplace for the foreseeable future. This way, the voting intentions of absent members could be recorded.