Government sources told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that advanced planning had taken place as to how a virtual Parliament would work, including legal advice as to whether MPs could vote virtually if they were not physically in the chamber.
The House of Commons, known as the Mother of Parliaments, was temporarily fitted with screens and able to sit 50 members in-person and have 120 members online during sitting days. The European Parliament also enabled its members to participate remotely in parliamentary activities.
In March, both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted in favour being able to meet in “a manner and form not otherwise provided in the standing orders” with the agreement of the government and opposition.
Leader of the House Christian Porter said at the time it was necessary to have the flexibility to respond to any upcoming challenges Parliament and the nation faced.
Manager of opposition business Tony Burke said Labor would deal with any changes to Parliament in a “very conservative fashion” with the intention of making sure that when the Australian people need the Parliament to meet it could.
A government spokeswoman said there were no current plans to hold a virtual Parliament in the upcoming sitting period.
“The implementation of a virtual Parliament would only be done with the agreement of the government and the opposition,” she said.
A drastically scaled back Federal Parliament sat for 12 days during the nationwide social distancing restrictions imposed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 40 MPs being “paired” to allow for about 90 members to be in the chamber safely.
Representatives from states that have shut their borders, including Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, were given exemptions to travel interstate without having to undertake 14-day quarantine on their return.
The Centre of Public Integrity has argued a UK-style hybrid model of online and in-person attendance could meet Australian Constitutional requirements and allow for greater participation of all elected representatives.
A briefing paper, compiled with former senior judge and integrity expert Anthony Whealy, warned the current diminished attendance of MPs could limit the engagement of backbenchers, minor parties, and the crossbench.
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Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra