With only a small minority of Victorian politicians able to join their federal colleagues later this month, pressure is mounting on the government to find a way to hold what some are calling a Zoom Parliament with video conferencing for those who couldn’t travel to Canberra.
Only around a dozen of Victoria’s 50 MPs and senators are thought to have agreed to quarantine for two weeks ahead of the next sitting fortnight in Parliament House from August 24.
That leaves more than 30 who won’t be representing their electorates and state in Canberra.
This, of course, isn’t out of the ordinary in 2020, with Parliament sittings earlier this year featuring a reduced capacity of members, to preserve social distancing in the House of Representatives and Senate.
But while they can’t be physically present, many people suggested politicians get with the times and use video conferencing technology to virtually appear in Parliament from home.
Now that the bulk of an entire state’s political representatives won’t be travelling to the nation’s capital, those calls for a Zoom Parliament are growing.
“We’ve indicated publicly we are willing to support video link being used for speeches, questions and answers. The issue now is whether the government allows it,” Tony Burke, Labor’s manager of opposition business, told The New Daily.
“There has never been a time where it is more important for the voices of Victorian MPs to be heard.”
Negotiations between the government and Opposition are continuing, The New Daily understands.
Federal politicians have been appearing at parliament committees via video link for some time, and proponents of the so-called ‘Zoom Parliament’ plan say it shouldn’t be too hard to scale that up.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said they were “sensible ideas” which the government had already been toying with.
Indeed, he has been conducting countless video meetings with state leaders in the national cabinet, and with international leaders in online summits.
Pleased to join with Singapore’s PM @leehsienloong in welcoming the signing of the Australia-Singapore Digital Economy Agreement. The agreement will drive greater efficiency, trade and investment in the #digitaleconomy, which supports jobs, livelihoods and regional recovery. pic.twitter.com/Y7ZuAt5dgA
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) August 6, 2020
But with the next sitting week now only 13 days away, it’s unclear whether such arrangements will be ready in time.
“Whether that is in a position where it’s at a standard, technologically and otherwise, with procedures to be in place for when Parliament meets next, well, we’ll see,” Mr Morrison said on Friday.
Indeed, such plans have already been rolled out in parliaments across the world, but they are not without technological kinks to be ironed out.
Australian parliamentary committee meetings conducted via video are regularly punctuated by members not taking their audio off mute before starting to speak, or conversely, forgetting to mute when it’s not their turn.
Sound, vision and even hardware connection issues are common; Labor senator Kristina Keneally had to briefly pause her line of questioning during a committee hearing into the government’s COVID response last week, as she asked for someone off camera to help her plug a cord into her device.
Overseas, British parliament has had a number of video gaffes after allowing Zoom video call-ins for months.
In one, the webcam of Scottish MP John Nicolson was obscured by his cat, Rojo, who blocked the lens with his tail during a committee hearing.
In others, MPs have missed their chances at asking questions by not taking their audio off mute.
Progress on virtual parliament has been impressive but not everything is going to plan… (Lords questions earlier) pic.twitter.com/0r2fVBVLIN
— Esther Webber (@estwebber) April 28, 2020
British politicians have been able to call in to ask questions, participate in question time, and make speeches.
In Australia, if the scheme gets off the ground, politicians will likely be able to do the same, but not cast a ballot in votes.
“While the President and Speaker are investigating whether or not we can have effectively ‘Zoom Parliament’, I don’t think we should go as far as having votes, which are done in any other way other than being sitting in the chamber for those votes to occur,” said acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge on ABC TV on Monday.
“The voting part of it is very important that it’s independently done, that you are standing alone, walking into the chamber, and taking that seat to record your vote.”
However, fellow Coalition MP Andrew Laming disagreed, saying “of course” politicians should be able to vote remotely.
“With no hesitation. Voting is the easy party. It is getting involved in the debate and the opportunity to sway opinion that is harder than the voting,” he said, also on the ABC on Monday.
The final arrangements are expected to be revealed in coming days.