A virtual solution to 21st Century government

By LAURIE PATTON | 7 April 2020

One day a rooster, the next day a feather duster!

As most of us are holed-up in our homes working or studying online as a response to the Coronavirus a bunch of politicians ignored medical advice and gathered together in Canberra. Perhaps it’s time for a virtual parliament?

Of course this would require that we first fix the NBN so that all our elected representatives and their advisors have decent broadband at home and in their electorate offices.

Every four years America elects a president. The vote occurs in November but the winner doesn’t take office until late January. Two hundred years ago they needed time for messengers from each of the states to hop on a horse and ride to Washington DC to deliver their result. Steeped in the observance of history this bizarre practice continues despite the fact that the outcome is known within hours or days of the poll.

For centuries MP’s have all crammed into a remarkably small room in London to argue over and pass the laws that govern the United Kingdom.

We had a heated debate over where to place our national capital so we dug a hole, created a lake, and built Parliament House in a remote location far enough away from the coast it couldn’t be shelled by enemy warships.

Back when I was a 20-something ministerial advisor the New South Wales Parliament regulaly did ‘all-nighters’. Why? I guess because they always had done. While at best a handful of MP’s were in the chamber the rest were asleep in their offices, or in the Member’s Bar.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, we’ve junked other historical precedents when it’s suited us; in particular the practice of ministers resigning their portfolio when they or their department stuff-up. These days even misleading Parliament, which was once an automatic sacking office, is barely seen as a misdemeanour.

Right now, as we deal with the Coronavirus, people are being required to work or study online at home. A much-needed decision has finally been made to allow bulk-billing of telehealth consultations so people don’t have to go to their doctor’s surgery.

Yet, ignoring calls from medical experts for social distancing and for people only to leave home in exceptional circumstances we held a parliamentary session in person – albeit with a reduced number of MP’s and senators selected by the major parties.

According to constitutional lawyer Professor Anne Twomey there is nothing in the Australian Constitution preventing Parliament being held online.

One argument being advanced for an in-person session is that our elected representatives need to continue to fulfil their responsibilities in a crisis. But what about the majority of them who have been denied that right by being excluded from the select group?

Another argument, opposing a virtual parliament, is both rational and a little bit precious in my opinion. There’s no doubt that the atmosphere in Parliament is often electric and this reflects the passion and the seriousness of the process. On the other hand, anyone who has spent any time there knows that mostly Parliament House is a rather boring sterile joint with confected seriousness and a somewhat boarding school feel.

Always looking for a reasonable compromise here is my suggestion for dragging government into the 21st Century – a virtual parliament.

These days all global businesses operate using teleconferences, the board meetings of many companies, large and small, are likewise held online. We can expect to see a raft of online Annual General Meetings in the upcoming company reporting season. So, why can’t we have remote sessions of our parliament?

A constant criticism and a notable downside to the current situation is the impact on all the people required to spend so much time away from their families – with the consequent impact on mental health occasionally confirmed by some of our high profile politicians.

This time we are ran a short-staffed parliament. Why couldn’t we do that more often? Just have the main players in person with the rest participating remotely via secure broadband services? Granted we don’t have all the technological infrastructure in place now, so perhaps we should include this as an action point in the post-Coronavirus planning?

Hands up if you know what the Federation Chamber does? Actually, hands up if you knew it exists!

So much time is devoted to rather pointless speechmaking slowing down the task of legislating this quaint facility was established within the new Parliament House back in 1994. 

Members can stroll into the ‘Fed Chamber’ and read aloud a prepared speech on pretty much on anything they like. Apart from someone in the chair and a Hansard reporter they’ll mostly be talking to themselves. But they can print it out and send it to their party branch members and their constituents saying: “This is what I said in Parliament last week”.

Why not create a virtual Federation Chamber and only drag everyone to Canberra for important events? MP’s and senators generally vote as they are directed by their parties. It’s probably been a very long time since anyone changed their vote on the basis of what they’d just heard in the chamber.

As we have just done, we could have a roster of MP’s and senators assemble in person with the majority back in their electorates, participating and voting electronically.

Question Time is a big part of the theatre of Westminster-style parliaments – but most of the Opposition’s questions inevitably are asked by the Opposition Leader or a handful of senior front benchers.

As for the Government’s questions; these are mostly what are called a ‘Dorothy Dixer‘ (meaning they were written by the minister being questioned). The standard uninspiring opening line is: “Can the minister update the House on…”

Having met to pass an urgent stimulus package Parliament will otherwise be adjourned until August. Surely it would be better to have a virtual parliament than none at all?

OK. This idea is unlikely to receive support in some circles. In fact I expect a good deal of resistence. Maybe it’s still ahead of its time. But sooner or later a more compassionate, but equally effective, online form of parliamentary democracy will surely emerge?

In the meantime, how about we use this new precedent on at least a few occasions in each parliamentary term and see how it goes? I reckon a few spouses and the children of most MP’s and senators would be very pleased.

(Laurie Patton was a Commonwealth Public Servant before becoming a ministerial advisor in the Wran Government and has advised federal and state government ministers, mostly Labor, for more than three decades. He reported on federal politics and later held senior executive roles at the Seven Network. These days he is Vice President of TelSoc and an advocate for #BetterBroadband and the elimination of the ‘digital divide’. The views expressed here are his own.)