IN SPITE of all its efforts, the government appears to have failed to convince the opposition to back its proposal for holding a ‘virtual parliamentary session’ as it is not safe to meet in person for a routine sitting because of the clear and present danger of Covid-19. The opposition is insisting on holding a session where members are physically present; it argues that the Constitution does not provide for virtual sessions, and wants the government to make arrangements in the house to ensure social distancing instead of insisting on videoconferencing. With the National Assembly yet to meet for another 58 days to complete the mandated 130 days sitting for the current year, and with the budget session just around the corner, both sides need to take a step back from their stated positions and find a middle ground soon.
Pakistan would not be the first country to organise a virtual parliamentary session through a video link. Canada has recently experimented with the idea quite successfully despite some glitches. If our parliamentarians are not inclined to follow the Canadian example, they may have something to learn from the UK where the House of Commons held a ‘hybrid session’ recently. For the first time in its 700-year history, 120 members of the House of Commons participated in the session via videoconferencing, restricting the number of MPs present in the chamber at any time to 50. The remaining 480 MPs were given access to the live session through parliament’s website. It should not be difficult for Pakistani politicians to agree to hold a similar hybrid sitting. Each party could ask a third of their members to be present in the house with the remaining politicians participating in the proceedings remotely through videoconferencing. Indeed, this arrangement will not be flawless and many who would want to speak their mind may not be able to express their views on issues to be debated, or intervene as they do during routine sittings. Yet this kind of arrangement should help organise future sittings for some time to come, without fear of anyone catching the infection. With the Speaker of the National Assembly already quarantined along with his family after contracting Covid-19, it is advisable for opposition parliamentarians to realise the seriousness of the situation and agree to this kind of hybrid arrangement in the larger interest of all lawmakers.
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2020