News AusPol over Zoom: Could federal Parliament be held online instead?

AusPol over Zoom: Could federal Parliament be held online instead?

Australians have been working from home, and many politicians have already been using video conferencing. Is a Zoom Parliament next? Photos: Getty/ Twitter
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Imagine the Speaker of the House deleting unruly MPs from the group chat, or a tech-challenged backbencher accidentally live-streaming their bathroom trip to the whole country.

With federal Parliament the latest workplace to send its normal occupants home to work remotely, calls are growing for MPs to join the rest of us in working more virtually, and enjoying all the positives (and pitfalls) that entails.

The next sitting fortnight, slated for early August at Parliament House, has been scrapped on health advice.

But with many Australians doing their regular job from home, people are asking – what about a digital parliament?

As many have pointed out, politicians have adapted to the post-COVID world just like the rest of us.

We’ve got the national cabinet of leaders meeting via video chat, live TV crosses on Skype, and parliamentary committee members grilling officials from their home offices.

So with the rest of us battling dodgy home internet connections, and shaking our heads at colleagues who don’t mute audio, surely it’s time for politicians to join in the fun and start a Zoom parliament?

Considering tech problems with working from home have morphed into memes over the course of lockdown, we have a fair idea of how a digital parliament could work.

In fairness, it may even operate somewhat better than now.

Imagine during question time, instead of temporarily muting microphones or ejecting unruly members under section 94A of the standing orders, the Speaker of the House could simply kick an MP out of the group chat if they won’t stop interrupting.

We’d have to give the Speaker the power to mute all participants though, lest an important speech be marred by an MP forgetting to mute audio or turn off video before retiring to the bathroom.

If your grandparents can do it, why not politicians? Photo: Getty

Staying on tech fails, with some older members of the chamber not exactly au fait with technology, no doubt we’d become quite familiar with the top of the foreheads or the inside of their nostrils, thanks to their inexpert placing of webcams – always far too close, or far away.

Voting on important legislation? Easily sorted with SurveyMonkey polls. The regular chamber divisions, with a yes or no answer, could be done with an even simpler Twitter poll.

Instead of Wednesday nights at Manuka’s Public bar, MPs and staffers and journalists could curl up on the couch, crack a wine, and partake in the only good work-from-home tradition – after-work video drinks.

After-work drinks with a 2020 twist. Photo: Getty

Just think of the incredible opportunities for ‘interrupting child’ content, as MPs with young kids try in vain to lock themselves in their offices, lest they become the AusPol equivalent of Professor Robert Kelly’s famous interview on the BBC.

It’s legally allowed. University of Sydney law professor Anne Twomey wrote in an article on The Conversation the constitution probably wouldn’t stand in the way.

Greens leader Adam Bandt is on board, saying Parliament’s sitting calendar “should not be a victim of the pandemic”.

“It seems 2020 is the year of online meetings and working remotely for everyone except Parliamentarians,” he said.

Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie also wants to see Parliament meet “virtually”.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese supported pausing federal Parliament on health grounds, but wants the chambers to scrutinise COVID-19 responses and plan vital programs like JobKeeper.

Imagine leaders yelling at each other over video chat. Photo: AAP

Tony Burke, manager of opposition business in the House, wants a committee of politicians and health experts to plan holding Parliament safely at the end of August.

Anika Wells, Labor MP for the Queensland seat of Lilley, said she would be “v keen” for a Zoom federal Parliament.

Of course, the business of Parliament is incredibly important, and the lives and livelihoods of millions of people depend on decisions made there. Meeting in person would be more desirable.

Because of course, maybe tech issues would simply scupper digital parliament from ever getting off the ground in the first place …