The Coronavirus outbreak has forced legislatures across the world to end sessions in order to protect the participants. However, can issues such as law-making which are directly related to public policy can be suspended for weeks? A Pakistani lawmaker pondered on the questions and came up with an out-of-box proposal to deal with extraordinary circumstances.
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Senator Sherry Rehman said on Wednesday that parliament should adapt itself to extraordinary circumstances and ramp up e-tech capacity to temporarily shift towards a virtual parliament.
“Parliament’s urgent role of scrutinising government, authorising spending, making laws and providing leadership during these testing times cannot be pushed aside” – Senator @sherryrehman https://t.co/F0aSrbUlUI
— SherryRehman’sTeam (@SRehmanOffice) April 9, 2020
In a statement seeking the convening of the parliament in extraordinary times like the current coronavirus emergency, PPP Parliamentary Leader in the Senate, Rehman said, “Parliament’s urgent role of scrutinizing government, authorizing spending, making laws and providing leadership during these testing times cannot be pushed aside.
The need of the hour is that parliament should adapt itself to extraordinary circumstances and ramp up e-tech capacity to temporarily shift towards a virtual parliament. These are very trying times for the whole country, and parliament is the best platform to shape unified responses that address the urgent needs of our people while coordinating an evolving situation across Pakistan.”
She said there is clearly a huge resource-crunch hitting all sectors as lockdowns stretch on. It is a national challenge that requires regular messaging and creation of distancing spaces in a country with populations living in cramped spaces, where everything is done communally, including business, governance, prayer and schooling, among many other things, she added.
The PPP leader said that parliament must take the lead in working on all such issues creatively and transparently, in the spirit of national unity. Many countries in the world are innovating fast to meet the needs of their populations while keeping them safe, and are creating online parliamentary spaces that can mobilize democratic tools to re-order many priorities, she added.
Essential committee meetings such as health, finance, planning, IT, interior, law and others must be convened online to plan for contingent futures, she suggested.
“The committee on health must start figuring out how we will provide for upcoming emergencies, protect our health professionals on the frontline, and get on with pooling our resources to fight this pandemic,” she said. None of this can be ignored and must be fast-tracked immediately by the custodians of both the Senate and the NA”, added the senator.
Stressing on the importance of creating fresh protocols for parliament staff, the senator said, “Telework facilities can be organized for the Parliament staff as Senate staff runs at 1,115 people, while 2,200 NA staff including CDA officials are posted during sessions. They are extremely vulnerable to infection in cramped quarters due to low office space in parliament building,” she said.
While essential committees can meet part virtually, part physically and transparency can be ensured by the live broadcast infrastructure which is already in place, easily tweaked by PTV, she maintained.
She said that like many parliaments that are stepping up to the challenge, Pakistan too can address key issues of security of votes, online debates as well as committee work which has already begun in one special committee made for monitoring COVID-19 responses.
In the region, Bhutan and Maldives are already doing this, while the UK, European, Brazilian, Spanish and many other parliaments are either transitioned already to online work, or have announced plans to convene electronically if physical convening is not totally possible, she said.
For making this operational in Pakistan, Article 67, which allows the Houses to make rules for regulating the procedure and conduct business can be studied, while Article 55 of the Constitution can be used and interpreted in the light of clear emergencies, as per international best practices, she further said.
Highlighting different ways in which parliament can be made virtual, the senator said that “for web hosting large numbers, many parliaments are turning to e-tech providers offering cloud-based solutions, including UK, Netherlands Senate, the Danish Folkinget, and Norway’s Stortinget. Bhutan is using G-Suite from Google Cloud, while CISCO web is already being used by Pakistan’s parliament.
The Senate already circulates its papers in e-folders, and the secretariat has taken authenticated signatures and addresses of senators, so really the path forward to continuing work during this pandemic is clearly possible.”
Senator Rehman appealed to the Senate Chairman and Speaker of the National Assembly to take this task into hands as Parliaments all over the world cannot be exempt from exploring urgent innovations to conduct crucial business. “Our task as representatives have become even more acute in times of crisis and legislators must continue to be answerable and available to the public,” she concluded.