Towards a Virtual Parliament

Towards a Virtual Parliament

Towards a Virtual Parliament
Design choices and democratic values

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Published on May 1, 2020.

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Introduction

Parliament is an essential service. A time of supreme national danger and public anxiety, when the federal government must hastily launch massive health and economic support measures, is a time for Parliament to be a venue for open debate and discussion. If Canadians are to trust that their concerns are being represented, then scrutiny of the government’s actions must come from their elected representatives, not just the media.

But not since the “Spanish flu” pandemic, when Parliament didn’t meet from May 1918 until February 1919, has there been such a physical risk to parliamentarians gathering. Fortunately, our current Parliament has technological tools available that the 1918 Parliament did not. Parliament must therefore do what so many other workplaces are doing: innovate in a hurry.

In this edition of the Democracy Monitor, an ongoing series exploring the state of democracy in a state of emergency, we make the case for a hybrid virtual Parliament—as the best of not-great options to keep Parliament working while Canada observes physical distancing and limits travel.

Key messages

  • It’s impossible for most MPs to regularly attend Parliament in person because of travel restrictions, health vulnerability, or concerns that their returning from Ottawa will expose constituents in vulnerable areas.
  • Parliamentary business must continue—and even go beyond emergency measures—as the threat of COVID-19 could extend over months or potentially years.
  • All parts of the country need to be represented in the incredibly important decisions being taken in Ottawa.
  • A hybrid model of Parliament—with important elements that focus on representation and accountability going virtual, as well as provisions for remote voting—is the best option to get us through this unique time. This report explores a hybrid model, outlining some design choices and values to consider.
  • If participants embrace good-faith experimentation, and tolerate some risk and messiness, Canada’s Parliament can innovate to maintain its essential functions through the remainder of the crisis.                                                                                                                   

With comparison to other countries, this report sets out the following recommendations:

  • Ensure all Members have an equal opportunity to voice their concerns and represent their communities.
  • Empower all Members to participate in decision-making through remote voting.
  • Create opportunities for scrutiny of all government activity, beyond just business related to the pandemic.
  • Continue to ensure timely legislative supports, such as staff and research, online, so that all Members can deliver high-quality scrutiny as the work of Parliament increases remotely.
  • Rebuild informal channels between parliamentarians, so that lines of communication are kept open within and across party caucuses, and between the House and Senate.
  • Allow Canadians to control part of the parliamentary agenda.

Scrutiny and representation cannot wait for the next time all parliamentarians are able to convene in person. A virtual or hybrid Parliament is complicated, limited, and imperfect. But it’s our best bet for sustaining core democratic functions through the coronavirus pandemic.

The issue before us

There’s no complete replacement to the full physical convening of Parliament. Bringing all Members together in one room symbolically levels the playing field between Government and Opposition, provides opportunities for intimate scrutiny, and permits informal interactions between parliamentarians. But for the moment, this simply isn’t an option.

Full, regular, in-person meetings do not comply with public health guidelines, particularly with respect to physical distancing. In-person meetings also entail travel, and some Members from remote communities worry about bringing the disease back with them from Ottawa. Parliamentarians should also model good civic behaviour, so for as long as large gatherings are prohibited, it’s not advisable that 338 MPs and hundreds more staff gather in one building or in close proximity.

Most people are already convinced of this. The real debate in Canada is over the only two feasible alternatives: a virtual or hybrid Parliament, or a strictly in-person Parliament operating with a skeleton crew of MPs.

The case for a virtual or hybrid Parliament flows, in part, out of the shortcomings of the emergency parliamentary sessions held in March and April to pass (please see the first instalment of the Democracy Monitor for more on our concerns about the skeleton crew model). Those sittings each had 30 to 40 Members, with most coming from Ontario and Quebec ridings within driving distance of Ottawa. This left large areas of the country, and especially rural and remote communities outside central Canada, either underrepresented or not represented at all in these highly consequential debates. Given that the COVID-19 outbreak varies enormously across regions, and that the economic consequences will be felt differently throughout the country, this is no time to dispense with regional representation.

The approach that relies on a small subset of MPs is also disempowering to individual Members. The parties divide the seats in proportion to their share of the total, with party leaders deciding who from their caucuses could attend. All other backbenchers are instructed to stay home.

Simply put, the skeleton crew approach permits a limited form of scrutiny to take place, but not democratic representation. It needs to be improved.

Current status: A quasi-virtual stop-gap

On April 20, the House of Commons met for one day and passed a motion that (1) adjourned the House until May 25, and (2) created a new Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic to operate through the adjournment. While most parliamentary committees have just 12 members, all MPs were appointed to the COVID-19 committee. Starting April 28, it met in-person on Wednesdays and via video conference on Tuesdays and Thursdays. At the committee, Ministers can make announcements, Members can present petitions, and, most importantly, Members can ask questions of the PM and other Ministers. It’s presided over by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

While it looks like the Main Chamber of the House of Commons, with most MPs taking part, in fact these meetings are a committee, and not Question Period.

So what does this mean? Parliament is still not “sitting.” MPs will not be able to debate or vote on legislation. (Parliament was officially recalled again briefly on April 29 to briefly pass additional measures, physically in the House with a limited number of MPs.) Going forward, the committee will host a Question Period–like session three days a week, with two of those days being virtual. There are also now seven regular House committees and two Senate committees working remotely to study different aspects of the pandemic response.

One of these is the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC), which has been given the job of studying how Parliament can continue through the pandemic. It's looking closely at possibilities for a more complete virtual Parliament, and will report in mid-May. More change could very well be on the way.

We think that’s a good thing, if it means more Members can participate, more Canadians can be represented in decisions, and more scrutiny can occur.

A primer on virtual parliaments

What are virtual parliaments? Fundamentally, virtual parliaments make use of online tools like video conferencing to permit parliamentarians to participate in proceedings without being physically present. In the wake of the pandemic, they’re emerging rapidly across the world, and have taken a range of forms.

It may be helpful to think about virtual parliaments on a spectrum. The maximal version of a virtual Parliament would conduct regular sittings and proceedings, including debates and votes, entirely online. So far, this is rare. The minimal version is active in Canada now—with committee proceedings, which do not require the House of Commons to sit, taking place online, while all Main Chamber business must still occur in person.

Spectrum of virtual parliament functions


Spectrum of virtual parliament functions

Another design decision concerns whether a parliament should be wholly virtual, consisting only of online participation, or if it should combine an in-person presence with opportunities for online participation. The UK Parliament is currently moving toward the latter hybrid model, and for good reason. Maintaining some in-person presence along with remote participation may help evade some of the thornier symbolic, constitutional, and logistical obstacles that would be encountered in rapidly converting in-person-only parliaments to virtual-only parliaments.

We judge the hybrid model to be the most likely and desirable route for the Canadian Parliament to follow. The roughly 40 MPs, who in the skeleton crew model would be called on to pass measures, could simply remain in Ottawa. Amongst them, they could provide physical quorum for limited proceedings. Other Members could video conference in.

The value proposition of virtual parliaments in this moment is straightforward and uncomplicated: they permit parliamentary work to continue when there are legitimate obstacles to physically meeting. As obvious as the rationale is, the idea of virtual parliaments has nevertheless attracted some resistance.

A snapshot of virtual parliaments at the end of April 2020

A snapshot of virtual parliaments at the end of April 2020  

What are the concerns raised against a virtual Parliament?


  • Unequal access: High-speed Internet is not evenly distributed across the country. Some MPs oppose a fully virtual Parliament for this reason, arguing that they would be potentially hindered or unable to participate. Yet the only alternative to the virtual Parliament—limiting the number of MPs in the House at a given time—would effectively guarantee that the remote and rural communities still waiting on sufficient broadband would go unrepresented while Parliament is populated by MPs living closer to Ottawa. Parliament must still explore every option to ensure virtual participation, including helping Members who cannot connect from their homes establish virtual offices elsewhere within their provinces, making use of local public institutions like libraries or colleges. Some MPs may still lose out. But in the short term, a virtual or hybrid Parliament will get us as close as possible to equal regional representation.

Number of MPs participating by province/region
apr 28 virtual sitting attendees

  • Technical challenges: As many point out, creating a virtual Parliament can never be as straightforward as moving a regular office meeting online. As the early experience of virtual committees made clear, issues like simultaneous translation also pose technical challenges that are distinct, though not unique, to Canada. COVID-19 is forcing many sectors to innovate and overcome logistical hurdles. Multilateral institutions like the UN Security Council, and multilingual legislatures like the European Parliament have managed meetings translated into multiple languages. Custom software platforms are being designed with simultaneous translation in mind. Let’s be ambitious here, embrace experimentation, and tolerate the fact that it won’t always be pretty (there’s evidence of that already). But risks can be managed, and procedural safeguards instituted.
  • Unconstitutional: Our constitution sets out the quorum—the number of members necessary for a meeting to take place—for both the House of Commons and Senate. For the House, the “presence” of 20 Members is required. Does this rule out the very possibility of a virtual Parliament? While “presence” is interpreted by some as being physically present, it’s up for debate here and among legal scholars in other Westminster democracies like Australia. For the immediate term, if the hybrid Parliament proceeds, with some MPs in the House providing physical quorum, while others participate online, the meaning of the word “presence” is likely sidestepped. Legal counsel for the House of Commons administration has suggested there are minimal constitutional risks in any case, and none if a hybrid model is adopted. Constitutional amendments are also possible. They could ultimately provide greater clarity for future emergencies, and could be preferable to relying on judicial interpretation. But in the near term, a hybrid model may help avoid that complication.
  • Losing the human connection: MPs tell us they miss informal contact with Members across party lines, and across the chambers, which help make Parliament function. We share this concern. It’s part of the reason why we have criticized the pre-pandemic trend of Members spending increasingly more time in their constituencies, and less in Ottawa. While there’s no way to directly replace that informal social mixing, it’s an intrinsic problem with virtual parliaments. But creative thought can be given to supporting additional lines of communication between Members from all parties outside of parliamentary business.

In the final analysis, the hybrid virtual Parliament is an emergency measure, and an imperfect one. Most of the changes required should be formally time-limited, and everyone should understand that the ultimate goal is to recommence physical meetings as soon as possible. But in this respect, the virtual Parliament is just like any number of emergency measures taken in the last six weeks—right for now, wrong for ordinary times.                                                                                                                   

Next steps for the virtual Parliament   

The proceedings of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, along with the work of seven Commons’ Standing Committees, provide a reasonable stop-gap to ensure that the government will be publicly scrutinized in the short term, including while the House is adjourned.

But more is needed. We don’t have clarity on when Parliament can resume regular meetings, and there are good reasons to assume it will be much later than originally anticipated.

Since the virtual or hybrid Parliament cannot wholly replace all functions of the physical Parliament, there must be careful reflection on what functions to prioritize.

Below, we make some recommendations for how to realize a more robust and effective virtual Parliament, founded on core democratic values like scrutiny, representation, responsiveness, and participation.

  • Ensure equitable participation: All Members have an equal opportunity to voice their concerns and represent their communities.

The emergency parliamentary sittings in March and April each consisted of just three dozen MPs, handpicked by their leaders. MPs from some parties reported that those not picked were instructed to stay home. Some virtual parliaments have applied the same principle. For example, at the UK House of Commons and the Welsh National Assembly, moving debates onto Zoom initially required limiting the number of participants. Of the UK’s 650 total MPs, just 120 can participate by video conference, with another 50 physically present in the House. Only last week, the Clerk of the House of Commons suggested similar limits may be required in Canada initially—though at the first remote meeting of the COVID-19 Special Committee on Tuesday, most members were able to join. The House administration deserves major credit for scaling up its technical capacity so quickly—and hopefully that puts the question of participation limits to bed. But if technological limitations do ultimately require capping participation in some proceedings, as they have elsewhere, it is important that Members have a mechanism to join proceedings without being chosen by their leaders. For example, along with opportunities for virtual or hybrid participation that are divvied proportionately among the parties, the Speaker could distribute additional spaces based on petitions from members. To ensure representation today, and to avoid a dangerous precedent for the future, it’s critical to push back against any approach that allows leaders to decide which of their MPs can exercise their right to participate in parliamentary proceedings. But tech advances made by the House administration may make this a moot point. 

  • Embrace remote voting: All Members are empowered to participate in the decision-making of the House.

Setting up a secure and trusted voting system takes time, and it’s therefore reasonable that the first phase of virtual parliamentary activity is focused on scrutiny proceedings alone. But at some point, Parliament must reckon with temporarily authorizing remote voting—rather than falling back on the skeleton crew every time Parliament has a decision to make. As e-voting experts Nicole Goodman and Alexander Essex argue, Canada is already quietly a global leader in online voting, and that practice can be extended to Parliament. They note that since parliamentary votes are public, Members could easily ensure their votes were properly recorded. Incorporating some form of time-lag into the process could provide that assurance before a vote is finalized. Some of the existing approaches for remote parliamentary voting are remarkably simple—from the European Parliament’s email-based system, to the Isle of Man Parliament’s decision to have Members write their vote in a chat box. Canada should strive for a more secure and custom solution, and software for this work will undoubtedly improve by leaps and bounds in very short order.

Procedural safeguards should be implemented alongside technical safeguards. At Westminster, for example, the interim rules authorizing remote voting also allow the Speaker to nullify a vote if technical issues are reported by a Member during the process.

  • Get ready for non-pandemic business: If the pandemic endures for some time, Parliament must resume its larger role of scrutinizing all ongoing government activity, and urgent non-pandemic business.

Given the pandemic’s global and historic proportions, it’s hard to criticize Parliament’s singular focus on that issue. But as the machinery of government keeps churning, other activities must be watched, and other decisions made. While several national parliaments have restricted their agendas to pandemic business only, others are seeking a balance.

A simple next evolution of the virtual Parliament is to bring back as many standing committees as can be supported remotely (and House of Commons administrators suggest that would not be all of them, though the picture seems to be rapidly changing) without the current direction to only collect evidence on the pandemic response. That would allow other business to arise organically, when there is a need or opportunity. In New Zealand, the creation of a dedicated Pandemic Response Committee has allowed the Parliament’s other committees to continue some of their important pre-pandemic work. Hopefully, the discussion in Canada’s new Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic will be substantive enough to do the same.

  • Give parliamentarians sufficient time to study bills, and ensure legislative research supports are widely used: Members see items for debate far enough in advance to read and analyze them, and are supported by parliamentary staff.

Members’ absence from Ottawa has disrupted the usual flows of information. Parliament has also passed emergency legislation on incredibly tight time frames. If votable business comes before the virtual or hybrid Parliament, Members must see the measures proposed with enough time to develop informed opinions, and consult with constituents and experts. The expediency argument has been taken too far in Canada, with measures passing the Commons at lightning speed without meaningfully altering when emergency benefits would actually reach Canadians. The responsibility for this change lies with the Government and party leaders.

MPs and Senators have access to their usual supports—like law clerks or Library of Parliament researchers—but from their home computers. These services must continue to be resourced to ensure they can meet parliamentarians’ needs directly and on time, despite the physical distance. Some MPs and staff may also need training and reliable web access to ensure they’re taking up the available tools.  

Time and help are essential if the virtual hybrid Parliament is going to provide high-quality scrutiny.

  • Rebuild informal channels: Members keep lines of communication open, within and across caucuses and chambers of Parliament.

The informal mixing of Members is probably the element that a virtual Parliament will struggle most to replace. So far, we’ve heard from MPs (though the story varies somewhat from party to party) that a reasonably high level of communication has continued within party caucuses, and even sub-caucuses with particular regional or issue focuses. But unsurprisingly, there’s little to no communication across party lines or between chambers.

Is there any solution to this? Not for the truly informal interaction that occurs in corridors, lobbies, and dining rooms. But we think this is a good time for all-party caucuses to prove their value. All-party caucuses are organized forums for MPs and Senators from different parties to meet on certain shared issues, passions, or regions. Examples include all-party caucuses on steel, tourism, and oceans. The leadership of these groups should make a push to resume occasional meetings, and to reach out to Commons administration for support if they need it (though given the Commons’ capacity constraints right now, self-sufficiency should be aspired to). That may be the best bet to support some modest cross-party and cross-chamber socializing outside of formal parliamentary business.

  • Give the public some control: A virtual or hybrid Parliament should debate the issues that matter to Canadians, and invite the public into Parliament in unique ways.

Initially, the focus must be on ensuring that Parliament’s most fundamental roles continue. But with the passage of time, the virtual Parliament could also explore opportunities to embrace its new digital dimensions and better connect with Canadians. Even if the virtual Parliament is scaled up to include remote voting, it’s unlikely to see much legislation, and almost nothing that isn’t pandemic related, leaving ongoing scrutiny as its primary role. A light agenda for votable parliamentary business could create opportunities to creatively incorporate public input into Parliament’s agenda—for instance by holding “take note” debates on petitions which collect a large number of signatures. Other Parliaments have made this a point of emphasis even in the emergency moment, to respond to public demand, more opportunities to debate pandemic response ideas, and demonstrate to citizens that they are heard.

We’ve also called for MPs to deepen and widen their constituent engagement using new digital tools. MPs owe huge service to their constituents right now—broadcasting credible information, monitoring the pandemic’s effects in their communities, raising constituents’ concerns, and helping sustain their communities through this isolating moment. To do those things effectively, they need help from the institution. As Parliament’s technical capacity gradually ramps up, we hope the House develops tools and expertise to equip Members for better digital public engagement. This is one aspect of the virtual or hybrid Parliament which could and absolutely should be sustained after the physical Parliament returns.

Conclusion

The hybrid virtual Parliament may prove to be more of a journey than a destination. We expect to see incrementally more business shifted online, often paired with in-person activity involving a small number of MPs. And we still look forward to when Parliament can meet again in person, and hope it’s not before too long.  

But the prudent approach is to keep pushing the virtual Parliament project forward—sensibly, and with a firm foundation in democratic values. Doing that requires tolerance for messiness, and some risk. It’s not perfect. But it’s the best way of assuring scrutiny of and representation in era-defining government decisions.



Copyright © The Samara Centre for Democracy 2020 
PUBLICATION DATE: 1 May 2020
CITATION: Michael Morden, and Paul EJ Thomas 2020. “Towards a Virtual Parliament: Design choices and democratic values.” Toronto: The Samara Centre for Democracy.
EDITORS: Kendall Anderson, and José Ramón Martí

Democracy Monitor

This article is the third instalment of the Samara Centre’s Democracy Monitor, a research series exploring the state of democracy in a state of emergency.

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Democracy Monitor Series