Virtual parliaments: Can they become a reality?

MAY 18 — Today will be our first Parliament sitting since December 2019 and there has been a lot of discussion about parliamentary processes in the time of Covid-19. 

Since the worldwide outbreak of the novel coronavirus, mass gatherings have been stopped as part of efforts to contain the viral transmission.

This led to the postponement and suspension of legislature sittings. One such is ours in Malaysia where Parliament had postponed its first sitting of the year to May 18, having initially been set for March 2020. 

This posed a challenge for Parliament and the government as constitutionally, they needed to convene within six months from the last sitting.

In this time, the Perikatan Nasional government had taken various measures to battle Covid-19, namely the movement control order (MCO) made pursuant to Act 342 or the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 and the Prihatin stimulus packages worth roughly RM260 billion.

We must give credit where it is due, where the government’s actions have helped to contain the spread of Covid-19, with our R-nought of the virus being brought down to about 0.3 from a high of 3.5 (R-nought of 4 means one infected person would cause the infection of 4 others).

However, a concern arising from this is the lack of checks and balances on executive decisions made, which can go well of course as determined with the benefit of hindsight. But they could potentially go very wrong too.

As such, Parliament is the forum for our democratically elected representatives to debate and enhance on such measures and provide legitimacy to them. At a time like this, politics must go out of the window as our primary objective should be to save lives.

It is in that spirit that we must provide flexibility in our current approaches, including to allow for virtual parliamentary sittings and related meetings to take place and ensure the continuity of the functions of Parliament.

Why is it important for Parliament to meet?

There are three pressing matters that require the immediate attention of MPs. Firstly, all MPs need to be informed of our developing situation with Covid-19. 

This includes the effectiveness of our responses, research into vaccines and the capability of our health system to handle potential new waves of the virus.

Secondly, there needs to be clarity in terms of the authority which law enforcement relies on to enforce the MCO and the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO). 

Although the public has reciprocated in goodwill thus far, this should not be taken for granted as more needs to be done to allay lingering concerns on executive decisions being made without oversight and potential lawsuits towards authorities.

Thirdly, emergency measures need to be legislated to give the government more fiscal space to manoeuvre during this crisis. 

Besides the Prihatin stimulus packages not being presented to Parliament yet, the current federal debt-to-GDP is hovering around 52 per cent with the federal debt ceiling set at 55 per cent. 

With a simple majority, Parliament can help increase this ceiling and allow for more borrowing to fund economic recovery and healthcare-related expenditures.

It can also amend the Employment Insurance System Act 2017 to expand unemployment insurance to more people who need it. 

This may be crucial with the Department of Statistics Malaysia projecting the country to record an unemployment rate between 3.5 per cent and 5.5 per cent this year, up from last year’s 3.3 per cent.

Can a virtual Parliament sitting take place?

The question that needs to be answered next is, can a virtual Parliament sitting take place in Malaysia? The short answer is yes, but there are some changes that need to be made first.

From a legal perspective, the Constitution and the Parliament Standing Orders are silent on this matter. However, this can be changed with an amendment to the Standing Orders. 

Standing Order 78(2) will need for the proposed amendment to be made to the Standing Orders Committee chaired by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, before proceeding to the House itself.

Alternatively, the Speaker has powers conferred under Standing Orders 90, 99 and 100 to suspend the Standing Orders or make a ruling, potentially in favour of virtual Parliament sittings. However, it is noted that this option might be politically sensitive or seen as a "nuclear" option for the Speaker.

From a capacity perspective, this ought not to be a problem given that our MPs should be well-exposed to virtual meetings that have taken place due to the MCO and Covid-19. The Inter-Parliamentary Union has issued guidelines on how parliaments around the world can respond to the Covid-19 crisis including video conferencing methods.

It is also noted that various national and international-level meetings have been held online. The Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has himself attended two notable Summits held via video conferencing by ASEAN and the Non-Aligned Movement.

Nevertheless, there remains concerns about cybersecurity and infrastructure. Parliament needs to ensure that any platform utilised must be secure to avoid any interference with proceedings. 

With many countries already adopting the online approach, the United Kingdom would a good example where they took advantage of their Easter recess to upgrade their systems and work with Zoom for a bespoke platform for their parliamentary sessions. This is especially important given early public concerns on Zoom’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

On the matter of infrastructure, preparation will need to be done to ensure that MPs have stable Internet connection. This may sound straightforward, but it is important to reduce lags and avoid disruptions to smooth parliamentary proceedings.

Drastic but different measures

The public debate and the international reactions on virtual legislatures prove that virtual Parliament sittings are indeed viable. We must remember that the drastic times that we are in calls for not only drastic but different measures.

Given that a physical congregation of MPs would not be ideal, all other alternatives, be they virtual or hybrid formats, must be considered to allow Parliament and its select committees to continue their work. 

These measures can include allowing MPs to occupy the public gallery in the Dewan Rakyat for physical distancing purposes, complemented by other strict health protocols.

Overall, it cannot be stressed enough that more needs to be done to combat the invisible enemy that is Covid-19. The next Parliament meeting is set to take place between July 13, 2020 and August 27, 2020, but that might be too late given pressing matters that need to be addressed in a timely manner.

At the end of the day, Parliament is an integral part of decision making which should not be ignored by the executive. Crucially, what matters more is not the meeting place of Parliament but rather its functions, where its inherent value in legitimising policy decisions are critical in these uncertain times.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

 

 

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