By Riley Kaminer
The threat of Covid-19 is leading parliaments around the world to think about innovative ways legislators can continue to serve their constituents. In this time of uncertainty, MPs are needed more than ever. However, they face the challenge of maintaining social distance guidelines and limiting travel to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Discussion of virtual parliamentary work predates the pandemic. Our work with U.K. Parliament on digital engagement in select committee inquiries shows, for example, how British parliamentary staff have been thinking hard about how to encourage citizen participation through the use of digital resources. Nonetheless, in many parliamentary contexts the shifts towards digital ways of working has been slow.
The practical realities of Covid-19 may be bringing about a step change. In recent days, several parliamentary bodies have either shifted online or made it possible in some way for their members to vote without being physically present in chambers. In other countries, discussions are taking place about the feasibility of parliamentary business going virtual. Some parliaments are also thinking about how to keep citizens digital engaged, when they cannot visit, or inform inquiries, in person.
Here is a roundup of steps various legislative bodies around the globe have taken or are considering in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Parliaments that already had online or remote capabilities
New Zealand MPs have long been able to be absent during voting. MPs can vote on behalf of each other or on behalf of their entire party. A new rule allows for proxy limits to drop or disappear if need be, allowing MPs to vote from their homes. Other new measures, such as allowing committees to meet and vote virtually, are also being considered.
Spain’s Congress of Deputies is using videoconference and televoting technologies to continue its legislative work during the Coronavirus epidemic. While these virtual services were already in place before the crisis, Congress is now looking at increasing capacity and improving offerings given the additional demand.
Parliaments transitioning online or remote ways of working
- The EU parliament has moved to email voting. In early March, Parliament allowed teleworking for most staff members. As of March 26th, MEPs are able to vote via email.
- Lebanon’s parliament has gone online. Sessions will be held using video conferencing technology. Lebanon’s president has also transitioned to online meetings.
- The Island of St. Maarten is holding virtual sessions to continue making legislation despite the House of Parliament being closed.
Discussions about parliaments potentially going online
- Policy and tech experts are discussing the possibility of Canada’s House of Commons switching to online voting. Canada is one of the leading countries in online voting for municipal elections. However, the House of Commons going online would be the first of any such effort on a national level.
- The US Congress has many hurdles to overcome if it wants to work remotely, according to an analyst from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. There is also a call for the US Supreme Court to go online in some capacity. But similarly to Congress, legal scholar Jonathan Turley notes that these efforts face an uphill battle from a legal and cultural perspective.
- Policymakers in Australia are exploring bringing the Commonwealth Parliament online. Political commentators argue that MPs ‘should lead, not follow’ and go virtual to minimise the spread of COVID-19.
- The UK Parliament is shutting down a week early for its Easter recess, but some MPs have called for a shift online. Parliamentary rules have already been relaxed to allow for business to be conducted through video conferencing, but this has been deemed ‘strictly temporary’.
- The Scottish parliament is still in session. While Holyrood is closed to visitors, citizens can watch debates live online. More information about long-term solutions to undertaking parliamentary business is set to be announced in early April.
- Politicians are moving their press conferences online, but journalists worry that this gives politicians too much control over which questions get answered.
- For national elections in the US, there is a movement brewing for states to ‘have a disaster election preparedness plan that includes wide opportunities for mail-in voting’. However, voting processes are managed by individual states and counties, which means that we are unlikely to see the implementation of an online voting system nationwide.
- Select parts of Singapore’s judiciary system are experimenting with replacing pre-trial hearings with video conferencing or email.
We will continue to track the digitalisation of parliaments around the world. If you work in a parliamentary body and would like to discuss or develop online ways of working, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.