15 Feb 2022

A Parliament with no MPs

From The House , 6:55 pm on 15 February 2022

 So far no MP in New Zealand’s Parliament has tested positive for Covid-19. So far. The presumption though is that before long numerous MPs will be absent from Parliament because either they have tested positive for Covid-19 or are close contacts. 

So how do you run a Parliament when key people, and many of them might be stuck at home. 

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

That’s actually a problem that Parliament’s Office of the Clerk has been working on for some time. The answer is a semi-virtual House but there are a surprising number of elements involved in making it work - today we’re just considering the MPs themselves. 

Even before Covid Parliament’s rules did not require all the MPs to be in the chamber all of the time. In fact almost none are required ‘in the room’ for it to function.

The rules demand that just two MPs must be present in the debating chamber - a speaker and a minister. And, no, no opposition MPs are required to be there, because otherwise by simply absenting themselves an opposition could grind a government to a halt. 

So - two in the room. But the rules also demand that most of the other MPs must be somewhere in the precinct (so they can be called in if necessary).

A set percentage are allowed to be absent from each party without votes being deducted from their party total.

During Covid that percentage rule has been changed at times to allow more MPs to stay home. But the new idea is to allow those MPs at home (or in their offices) to actually participate in the house. To ask and answer questions. To take part in debates. To vote.

This is what Chris Hipkins refers to as a “further contingency ... If we end up with a larger number of people who can’t participate we want to be able to do things online.”

You can imagine that gets a fair bit harder and both the technology and the rules have had to be rethought. 

But this week it is expected the new rules may be agreed in order to be ready before it is necessary.

Hipkins points out that while Parliament’s rules can be changed by a simple majority (eg the government), “when you’re doing something which does have quite a significant bearing on the way Parliament operates you want to try and get as close to consensus as you can.”

In the meantime, many of the 'moving parts' of Parliament are moving themselves into separate bubbles (like the speaker and his deputy), or working more from home, or moving their meetings online (like the Cabinet have), so that they are less likely to be the cause of a widespread simultaneous ‘outage’ of staff, MPs or ministers as a result of Covid-19.