This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a 17.6 Billion funding package to help the Australian economy avoid a recession. This historic announcement requires legislation to pass through both houses to release the funds.
Parliament isn’t scheduled to return for a couple of weeks (31 March – 2nd April), but given how fast things are moving with the response to Coronavirus, its possible Parliament house could be closed.
Typically politicians from all sides are required to physically be in the upper and lower house chambers to cast their vote on legislation.
Votes are cased by a verbal “yay” or “nay” and when a clear winner is obviously, the majority wins. A divisions is required when the winner is not immediately obvious. In the event of a division, the bells are rung throughout parliament house and politicians who are in the chamber before the doors are locked, are able to vote.
When one side of politics have members that can’t attend, there’s an unofficial agreement to provide a pair (basically an agreement that if someone is off attending a funeral, or is ill, a member from the opposing side, will sit out the vote to make it “fair”). Remember, this is unofficial, so things could get messy.
So we can see from the current structure, that passing legislation in Australia requires member of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, to be physically present to vote. This means we’re in interesting territory if Parliament House is shut down due to Coronavirus.
Imagining another scenario where a number of politicians test positive for COVID-19 (Dutton already has), then we may face a challenge of meeting the minimum number of politicians for a vote to be classified as valid. The presence of at least one-fifth of the whole number of the members of the House of Representatives is necessary to constitute a meeting of the House for the exercise of its powers.
As we know, Coronavirus is potential deadly, with 5,402 already confirmed dead internationally from the virus. Most people however will suffer from cold and flu-type symptoms, which could leave many politicians physically able to read proposed legislation and vote on it, if they could vote remotely.
It’s 2020, so we have the technology (and hopefully the NBN), to enable live video conferencing with technologies like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting etc, which would enable each of the politicians to participate and even vote, in the event a vote had to take place remotely.
A system for Electronic voting has been trialled for elections in Australia, but as yet, we have not had it approved as a method for electing our federal politicians. It is possible Australia could approve an amendment to legislation to enable voting remotely for politicians, to ensure important bills, like the Government’s A$17.6Billion financial package to support the most vulnerable in our society, and those exposed businesses that could otherwise go bust with severe downturns in demand for their product or services.
What do you think? Should politicians be able to vote on legislation at home?
Given we don’t know how long the impacts of Coronavirus will be with us, we should also consider future elections. There are three elections scheduled to be held this year in Australia. The NT on August 22nd, followed by ACT on October 17th and QLD on October 31st.
These are months away, but it is worth considering if we could stand up a reliable, secure, electronic voting system within 6 months to support those elections. We’d need to start now if that is at all possible.