At 5pm on Wednesday 25 March, Parliament adjourned for the next five weeks.
Although it is due to open again on 28 April, it will not do so until the national alert status has been lowered. Standing Orders say select committees can continue to work remotely on bills in the meantime but in the absence of a physical parliament, the House cannot pass legislation without changing, or at least meeting to decide to change, the rules.
Seamless collaboration or virtual disconnection
There are three basic processes that must be managed remotely during this period – cabinet meetings, select committee meetings and parliamentary debates. Remote working causes issues for each one.
Cabinet meetings and select committee meetings are the easiest to resolve – they’re very similar to normal video conferences (VC) in the business world.
But how would a virtual debating chamber session function on a conference call? Assuming the Speaker (currently the Right Honourable Trevor Mallard) sets up and hosts a VC, would he have the power to mute an MP during a debate, and does he have the legal right to do so?
Does the opposition have the power to challenge/mute the prime minister?
Will question time be streamed on the live chat in the sidebar and if so, can they add in GIFs to the reaction of some of the statements made?
With the growing uncertainty of how long our country will be on lockdown, one must wonder how government services can proceed in a virtual world and about the practicalities of a digital parliament. In addition, how do the rules change for those who would normally attend in the lobby, chamber or gallery?
Securing a future virtual state
Due to the nature of the organisation, Parliament must maintain the highest trust and security for the people who keep it running. With select committee meetings being held via video conference, how can we ensure that these virtual meetings are kept secure, especially when some VC platforms like Zoom appear to not be encrypted end-to-end.
It’s important to note these quick facts:
- The average cost of a breach to public sector costs A$1.7m
- Breaches from system glitches and human error account for 49 per cent of attacks today
- The chance of experiencing a breach in the next two years is 29.6 per cent.
While the impact to public sector is significantly lower in comparison to other industries, in times of crisis and extreme circumstance, the risk becomes greater and our government becomes a more likely target.
In New Zealand, government bodies participate in information threat sharing, and recognise the value and necessity of leveraging third party consultants, such as managed service providers, to better prepare for an attack. In many instances, there is a top-down approach to embodying the importance of embarking on a risk-first strategy. These are just a couple of the many tactics that can aid in mitigating the associated risks and costs.
It’s easy to say we don’t really need parliamentary oversight of the government during this time, but when there’s a crisis, that’s precisely the time when such oversight is so very important. Fortunately, today we have the tools to enable parliament to do its work whether they meet in person or not.