Virtual parliament

Published June 21, 2021
The writer is a researcher at PIDE.
The writer is a researcher at PIDE.

THE hooliganism witnessed on June 15 in the National Assembly was the culmination of a sequence of events that began with the deafening noise during the prime minister’s first speech to parliament, after he was elected leader of the house in 2018. The fact that no group seems to be winning in the tit-for-tat game should theoretically help calm things down. But that can only be the case if all groups are interested in an orderly house. Does an orderly house suit all groups? If the answer is ‘no’ then we have to look for an alternative solution instead of attempting — and failing — to forge cooperation between the groups to run the house in a disciplined manner.

A parliament in which legislators participate virtually would help prevent hooliganism and not affect the potential of a healthy debate. All mikes are muted at the beginning of the session and the Assembly staff would unmute the mike of the member whom the speaker allows to speak. If parliament went virtual it would lead to several benefits apart from preventing unruliness.

Quite often, in more than one political dispensation in Pakistan, a question has been raised: why does the prime minister not come to parliament more often? Why is the prime minister not present to answer questions asked by the lawmakers or to express his government’s stance on important domestic and foreign policy issues? Perhaps, it is the prospect of an unruly environment that has made the prime minister go back on his promise of answering questions asked by members of the house.

How about lawmakers making a virtual appearance?

So how about the prime minister making a virtual appearance to answer questions?

Going a step further, can a parliamentary session be held over Zoom or some other digital forum with members participating from the comfort of their homes? Will a virtual session serve the purpose of an on-site session?

In a parliamentary session, legislators including the prime minister do not address each other directly. Rather, all of them address the speaker of the house. With one-to-one interaction among members not required, the loss of an on-site facility will not cause problems.

Imagine the savings in terms of costs. Without in-person sessions the federal government would no longer need the Parliamentary Lodges. The maintenance expenditure incurred on the upkeep of the lodges would not be required either. The national exchequer would register huge savings incurred on transport and daily allowances of the members. The staff hired to cater to the travel and transport needs of the members would not be required either. Savings would also be recorded in the maintenance and upkeep of the parliament building. Subsidy on food served to the members in the parliament’s cafeteria would not be required.

Not required to attend sessions in Islamabad, members of parliament would have more time to address the needs of their constituents while still managing to participate in parliamentary sessions. There will be fewer instances of quorum breakdown.

When a vote is to be taken on a crucial issue, parliamentarians find reasons to stay away from Islamabad and hence the parliamentary session. The absence of crucial votes means that one side, despite having the numbers to win, faces defeat. On a virtual platform, such surprises can be minimised.

Parliamentary rules generally followed by democracies were developed in England which produced the mother of parliaments. In the beginning, the problems, demands, and wishes of the electorate spread across the country could be conveyed to the government only by the representatives of the people residing in their areas. Similarly, before the advent of the print and electronic media, the response of the government could be conveyed to the masses only through representatives present in parliament.

All this has changed. Members of parliament are no longer the best medium available to carry the government’s stance to the electorate — many members may not visit their constituency for years, let alone speak to the people there. In fact, it is possible to disseminate the response of the government to the entire electorate through print and electronic media. With mobile phones available, even sending messages directed at specific persons or voters of a specific constituency is possible. It would be more useful if the prime minister or a minister answers a question raised by a member of parliament, by addressing the entire nation through the medium of television. The members can always ask a supplementary question virtually using the parliamentary medium and the response of the minister or the prime minister can be heard by the entire nation instead of just the members. The virtual parliament is a win-win situation for all except those interested in pandemonium.

The writer is a researcher at PIDE.

idreeskhawaja@pide.org.pk

Twitter: khawajaidrees11

Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2021

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