26 Apr 2020

Going virtual: taking parliament onto the holodeck

From The House , 7:30 am on 26 April 2020

It’s only a couple of years since Parliament began experimenting with connecting Select Committees to the world via video streaming. It’s a year or so since committees opened their virtual doors to accepting live video submissions.   

These days watching or submitting to committees via video is part of a typical day.

But when the country went into lockdown and attendance was no longer possible Hans Landon-Lane, the man who connects Parliament to social media, had to get ready for something much bigger and more complicated.

Para Kore Marae Incorporated general manager Jacqui Forbes speaks to the Environment Committee via videoconference.

Para Kore Marae Incorporated general manager Jacqui Forbes speaks to the Environment Committee via videoconference. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

“We had a whole new select committee that was basically taking over Parliament’s role of holding the government to account. It was replacing question time and ministerial statements - it was really the only show in town and understandably [MPs] from all sides of the House wanted to get that in front of as many people as possible”. 

Select committees have never been televised. The concept had been ruled out. But now it seemed important. And was needed urgently. 

“We actually had about the space of an afternoon. ...We decided to give it a go and thanks to some very obliging engineers at Avalon TV studio we managed to patch up a connection between our social media livestream and the TV broadcast equipment, which then meant we could get the broadcast on radio as well.”

So with a bit of gaffer tape and a few crossed fingers they connected the Epidemic Response Committee (the lockdown’s ersatz parliament) to RNZ’s AM Parliamentary radio station, and Parliament TV, as well as the virtual Parliament app, numerous Facebook pages and Vimeo.  

New Zealand's Epidemic Response Committee on a Zoom call

New Zealand's Epidemic Response Committee on a Zoom call Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

With the sudden wide reach, little competition other than doom-scrolling or home school and an increased appetite for news the audience for parliament’s broadcasts of the ERC have far surpassed all previous figures for live watching as well as featuring in numerous broadcast news stories. 

“This is officially our most watched select committee ever in New Zealand. More people have tuned in to these proceedings just in the last couple of weeks than have seen some of the other committees in their entire span of existence.”   

It’s an impressive feat for a patched-up solution steaming from a non-descript committee room in the basement of the Reserve Bank and from MP’s homes around the rohe. 

Getting a virtual education

Across Parliament in the pedestal of the Beehive the Education Centre, often ringing with the voices of students playing parliament sits empty. The team of educators have also gone virtual.

They have been creating resources for schools and students learning remotely and taking their virtual parliament to a wider audience. In this case an literal virtual Parliament via the Parliament XR app which is now available in te reo.

Education head Ben Logan-Milne says his team has taken the opportunity of the lockdown to power ahead on a list of projects including developing syllabus materials for civics and social studies in schools.

Voting underway at the Mapua School Parliament

remember when schools used to actually visit Parliament. Good times. This is Mapua school's new governing party voting during a mock parliament.   Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

They’ve also been taking their public education role online as well, running webinars to help members of the public feel more confident interacting with law making; the webinars cover topics such as how to submit to Select Committees, and coming up: how laws are made, and how petitions work.

“None of this is new information”, says Hans Landon-Lane. “It’s all stuff that’s been on our website for donkey’s years. And then before that was in various dusty books. But having the information available isn’t the same thing as having the information useful. So if people tell us what they want to see us doing, we’ll do our best to deliver it.”

Instant jet-setting

The MPs have also gone virtual and not just in committee. 

MPs from around the world travel frequently, sharing information, ideas and methods with each other; making useful diplomatic contacts and sharing support. Almost every week New Zealand’s Parliament hosts groups of politicians or officials from somewhere overseas. Delegations of New Zealand MPs also travel frequently with itineraries that sound relaxing and exotic until you realise just how many meetings they attend and how little else they see.  

It’s a bit different now. Now they get to avoid the jet-lag.

The National Party health spokesman MP Michael Woodhouse was nominated by the Speaker to participate in two different virtual international MP meetings last week.

National MP Michael Woodhouse on the Health Committee

Michael Woodhouse in an 'actual' select committee Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

On Thursday Michael Woodhouse represented NZ’s Parliament 'in Manila’ for a meeting on Covid-19 by the W.H.O. and the Asia-Pacific Parliamentarian Forum on Global Health.

Michael Woodhouse had the advantage of having previously met many of the participants at another inter-parliamentary event last year.   

“It was an opportunity for selected Parliamentarians to share their experience and response to Covid. The themes were very familiar - lockdown, testing, tracing, PPE and surveillance.  Asia-Pacific countries have varying degrees of outbreak but all believe their responses have been of a high standard.”

On Saturday he was at virtual meetings from ‘Washington D.C.’ for a briefing and exchange session on pandemics and Covid-19 from the World Bank and IMF, with other legislators from affected countries. The meet was conducted over Youtube live with around 180 international MPs participating. 

“There was a reflection on immediate actions countries are taking plus a look to the future.  The immediate actions were pretty familiar although many of the developing nations are concerned about their lack of resources and systems should the virus emerge more aggressively in those countries. 

“This is particularly concerning on the African continent.  There were some novel initiatives, for example in Somalia where they have developed a technology where instead of the ringtone when making a phone call, callers hear Covid-19 messages on distancing and cough etiquette.”

Such International get-togethers aren’t just about sharing ideas for the current crisis however.  Legislators in a prime position to see what they could have done better are also well placed to plan for the future.  

“Future-focussed ideas included a greater collaboration globally to prevent and/or prepare any future pandemic and a review of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The economic impacts of the health response and political measures to address this were strong themes in both video conferences.”

And all without leaving his front room.