Why not hybrid proceedings? ― Hafiz Hassan

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JUNE 5 ― I am curious that former Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal has called for a conventional parliamentary session instead of a hybrid sitting to thoroughly discuss the nation’s Covid-19 situation. 

It was only a day before that de facto law minister Takiyuddin Hassan said that the government was researching ways to run the Parliament sessions via hybrid mode after sessions were suspended since the Emergency Proclamation was declared in January. 

According to Takiyuddin, a meeting held virtually between him as the minister in charge of Parliament affairs, with both the Speakers of the House of Representatives and the Senate and Deputy Speakers, had discussed matters relating to preparations towards the implementation of a hybrid Parliament that covered aspects of infrastructure, technical, legal, regulatory and financial.

“In the meeting, it was also decided that a more detailed study be made immediately to provide a complete paper that will be produced in the near future for the consideration and approval of the Cabinet,” Takiyuddin said.

What a development ― one that must be warmly welcomed.

A year ago, the minister had shot down the Opposition’s call for a full Parliament sitting on May 18 then (which was adjourned further to July), and in a stinging response had called it premature, narrow and failing to grasp priorities.

I had thought then that if such a call was premature, narrow and failed to grasp priorities, the same could be said of a similar call made by more than 100 British Members of Parliament (MPs) who petitioned for the House of Commons – the lower house of the British Parliament ― to work exceptionally during exceptional circumstances. 

And that was for Parliament to move online or go virtual for the duration of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

What was significant was that the call was also made by the then House Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle. In a letter to House’s leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir Lindsay asked if he (Jacob) would “make representations to the government” to enable the House to legislate, scrutinise and represent constituents “virtually.”

The Speaker’s call was said to be “unusual.” But the British government must be credited for a positive response to the call as the House’s leader announced shortly after that the government was setting up a virtual Parliament to allow MPs to scrutinise its response to the Covid-19 crisis.

The House leader himself should take much credit as he unassumingly acknowledged that “Parliament’s role of scrutinising government, authorising spending and making laws must be fulfilled and in these unprecedented times that means considering every technological solution available.” 

The Speaker’s and the MPs’ calls elicited a response from the Clerk of the House Dr John Benger as well. In his response, Dr Benger wrote:

“The introduction of a further virtual element to the House’s formal proceedings would require a resolution of the House, akin to the resolution which permitted virtual meetings of select committees.”

The House of Commons duly convened on April 21 and made history. A motion for the resolution of the House was approved without a vote to allow members to participate either virtually or physically in the debating chamber.

The motion, moved by the House’s leader, read as follow:

“That this House is committed to taking all steps necessary to balance its responsibilities for continuing scrutiny of the executive, legislating and representation of the interests of constituents with adherence to the guidance issued by Public Health England and the restrictions placed upon all citizens of the United Kingdom, and is further committed, in pursuit of that aim, to allowing virtual participation in the House’s proceedings, to extending the digital capacity of those proceedings to ensure the participation of all Members, and to ensuring that its rules and procedures are adapted to permit as far as possible parity of treatment between Members participating virtually and Members participating in person.”

This led to debates for orders of the House on, among others, “hybrid proceedings”. 

Now, events leading to the historic day on April 21, 2020 are as important as the day itself. These can be seen here and here.

Following the resolution, the House would sit with a maximum of 50 MPs present in the chamber at any one time to comply with social distancing guidelines while a maximum of 120 MPs would take part remotely via Zoom video conference beamed onto television screens dotted around the walls of the debating chamber.

Shafie’s claim that countries like Singapore and the United Kingdom have continued to allow their legislative arm to sit and collectively address the pandemic and plan for economic recovery is true, but those countries have allowed for virtual sittings.

Now that Takiyuddin and the Speakers and Deputy Speakers of the Dewan Rakyat (DR) and Dewan Negara (DN) have met ― better late than never ― it is much hoped that the DR can reconvene, sooner rather than later.

Honestly and respectfully, there is not much researching to do “in order to prepare a paper so that this can be brought to the cabinet for consideration and approval as soon as possible.” 

The UK’s House of Commons offers a working model, which has been improved over the year since it was introduced. The minister may also wish to look at the Canadian model.

It is my humble submission that it does not require amendments to the Federal Constitution for a virtual sitting of Parliament, even though neighbouring Singapore took that route last year.

Article 55(1) does not mandate that Parliament meets in-person.  Article 44 says Parliament consists of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA), DN and DR.

Clearly, Parliament is not the building called Parliament House. It is the collection of members of the DN and DR as well as the YDPA who may meet at the Parliament House – or elsewhere as may be summoned by the YDPA [Article 55(1) ― in-person or virtually.

Since each DN and DR is constitutionally mandated to regulate its own procedure [Article 62(1)] and their proceedings are non-justiciable [Article 63(1)], each may resolve to meet in-person and/or virtually.

So, why not a hybrid proceeding?

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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