The Morrison government has proposed trialling virtual debates in federal parliament. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS

Technology

MPs to trial remote parliamentary debates

2020-08-13 14:09:15

Federal politicians could debate virtually during the upcoming sitting fortnight despite ongoing squabbling between the major parties over videoconferencing.

The Morrison government remains concerned about technology and potential implications on the legal protection of parliamentary privilege.

The coalition is also worried the proposal could lead to MPs and senators choosing to dial in to parliament out of convenience rather than necessity.

Despite the concerns, Leader of the House Christian Porter wants to trial allowing politicians to virtually debate matters towards the end of the next sitting week, which starts on August 24.

Victorian MPs living through renewed coronavirus lockdowns would get first crack at the arrangements, which wouldn’t allow voting from outside the parliament.

If successful, the measures could be applied more broadly during the following sitting week.

Mr Porter told Labor work would need to be done to ensure politicians’ statements would be protected by parliamentary privilege.

Manager of opposition business Tony Burke said the concerns were “alarming”.

“If there is doubt as to the availability of privilege for comments made remotely then the parliamentary committee system has been seriously compromised for many years,” he wrote in response.

“If you have legal advice to this effect then it is incumbent on you as leader of the house to share this with all committee chairs as a matter of extreme urgency.”

Mr Porter pointed to poor connections and drop-outs during recent parliamentary hearings as potential stumbling blocks.

“Perhaps this would be a rare occasion where the first use of an IT communications solution on a scale and in a context previously untested occurs seamlessly and without incident,” he wrote.

Mr Burke argued the next two weeks would be ample opportunity to iron out technical problems, noting only one live audio link would be needed at a time.

He said problems in committees stemmed from Wi-Fi rather than blue cables in electorate offices.

Mr Porter said virtual parliament needed to be limited to MPs with “no real practical alternative” other than to be outside Canberra.

He said the remote arrangements should not be used “as a convenience rather than a necessity”.