By Rob Harris, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 6th July 2020.
Federal Parliament could be able to sit virtually by the time it returns in August, with detailed planning under way to allow MPs and senators to speak and vote in both chambers without physically being in Canberra.
Parliamentary officials have been working on a contingency plan since March to allow members to debate and legislate via video conferencing from the safety of their own homes or offices should further lockdowns be imposed.
While there are currently no plans implement virtual sittings, parliamentary officials have sought detailed briefings from the British Parliament, which adopted a hybrid model in April to allow questions and statements to be delivered by MPs both in-person and via the video conferencing platform Zoom.
A major spike in coronavirus cases in Melbourne has led to the indefinite closure of the Victorian-NSW border, leading some federal MPs to fear they may not be able to return to Canberra when Parliament returns for its spring sitting period next month.
Government sources told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that advanced planning had taken place as to how a virtual Parliament would work, including legal advice as to whether MPs could vote virtually if they were not physically in the chamber.
The House of Commons, known as the Mother of Parliaments, was temporarily fitted with screens and able to sit 50 members in-person and have 120 members online during sitting days. The European Parliament also enabled its members to participate remotely in parliamentary activities.
In March, both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted in favour being able to meet in “a manner and form not otherwise provided in the standing orders” with the agreement of the government and opposition.
Leader of the House Christian Porter said at the time it was necessary to have the flexibility to respond to any upcoming challenges Parliament and the nation faced.
Manager of opposition business Tony Burke said Labor would deal with any changes to Parliament in a “very conservative fashion” with the intention of making sure that when the Australian people need the Parliament to meet it could.
“The implementation of a virtual Parliament would only be done with the agreement of the government and the opposition,” she said.
A drastically scaled back Federal Parliament sat for 12 days during the nationwide social distancing restrictions imposed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 40 MPs being “paired” to allow for about 90 members to be in the chamber safely.
Representatives from states that have shut their borders, including Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, were given exemptions to travel interstate without having to undertake 14-day quarantine on their return.
The Centre of Public Integrity has argued a UK-style hybrid model of online and in-person attendance could meet Australian Constitutional requirements and allow for greater participation of all elected representatives.
A briefing paper, compiled with former senior judge and integrity expert Anthony Whealy, warned the current diminished attendance of MPs could limit the engagement of backbenchers, minor parties, and the crossbench.