Can you hear me? Remote participation in the Commonwealth Parliament

Screen in the Senate chamber showing Senators joining remotely
Courtesy of Auspic

Being on mute, an interrupting pet, interesting camera angles, items in the background and technical issues are just a few examples of what parliamentarians have become accustomed to in order to continue business as usual during the coronavirus pandemic. This FlagPost uses a procedural lens to understand how remote participation was implemented and its lasting impact.

Joining the meeting in the 46th Parliament

Section 50 of the Constitution allows each chamber to make their own rules regarding the conduct of their business. They first allowed remote participation for committees by changing standing orders in early 1997 for Senate Committees and late 2000 for House of Representatives’ (House) committees. The broadcasting infrastructure originally allowed for committee members and witnesses to participate remotely via telephone facilities. However more robust IT infrastructure was needed to enable remote participation in Parliament during the pandemic.

Remote participation in the chamber is a bit more complicated than committees, given the constitutional requirements about where the parliament sits (section 125), vacancies arising for non-attendance (sections 20 and 38), quorum (sections 22 and 39) and voting (sections 23 and 40). Nonetheless it was made possible via two related procedures: resolutions and rules—set in agreements in the House and adopted by resolution of the Senate.

On 23 March 2020 the House and the Senate agreed to similar resolutions to allow for greater flexibility in how each chamber operates. In addition, the resolutions in each chamber provided for consequent rules—including for remote participation—to be determined by the Leader of the House and Manager of Opposition Business in the House and the Procedure Committee in the Senate. In late August 2020 the House’s rules were set in agreements and the Senate’s rules adopted by resolution of the Senate (the Senate’s rules were revised in May 2021 to allow the President and Deputy President to make a determination that remote participation would be allowed on specified sitting days). Each chamber’s rules were subsequently agreed to or adopted respectively, at the commencement of each sitting period.

The Senate also agreed to another resolution in early September 2020 (September resolution) primarily about the right of senators to attend Parliament despite border restrictions imposed by states. Whilst the September resolution mentions the right to participate remotely, it is contingent on that option being available—that is by the Senate readopting rules by resolution each sitting period.

It is important to note that participation is limited for parliamentarians attending remotely. For example parliamentarians participating remotely in the House and the Senate cannot vote or be counted for quorum, move motions or amendments, propose or support a proposal to discuss a matter of public importance, call a division or draw attention to the lack of quorum.

During the 46th Parliament, 125 or 53.6%* of parliamentarians (MPs/Senators) participated via video link in the chambers. Of these:

  • all (four) parliamentarians from the Northern Territory participated remotely (see Figure 1)
  • NSW and Victoria—with the first and second highest number of representatives respectively—had the equal most, with 32 parliamentarians participating remotely
  • 68 or 54.4% men and 57 or 45.6% were women
  • comprising 68 Opposition, 38 Government and 19 crossbench members

Re-joining in the 47th Parliament

With the pandemic continuing, remote participation may well continue in the 47th Parliament. However the resolutions made in March 2020 in both chambers were time limited (see Submission 2 The Hon Tony Burke MP—at the time Manager of Opposition Business in the House) meaning they existed until the prorogation of the 46th Parliament and the rules were only agreed or adopted by resolution for the duration of each sitting. Despite the Senate’s September resolution being of continuing effect, meaning it exists during future parliaments, as noted above remote participation was not its main focus and to be available would require the 47th Parliament to make remote participation available via the additional step of rules. 

Following the 2022 election, the chambers—with a new composition of parliamentarians—will be setting the procedural rules. There have been new appointments for the Leader of the House and Manager of Opposition Business and there will be new members on the Senate Procedure committee.

In his submission to the House Procedure Committee inquiry into the procedures and practices adopted by the House in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tony Burke who is now the new Leader of the House stated:

The presumption must always be that the House should sit in the way that it has always done – that is, in person, in Parliament House, in our nation’s capital.

Any readers who interpret this temporary provision as some kind of endorsement for a future “virtual parliament” or similar would be very much in error. 

However MPs like Kate Thwaites and Lisa Chester are supportive of remote participation, seeing it as a fallback option for other matters including carer responsibilities. This may align with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s call for a ‘family-friendly’ parliament.

An international call

Overseas Parliaments have also been proceeding via remote means including Commonwealth Parliaments such as the Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Australia could look at Canada’s introduction of a hybrid voting process whereby members can vote by standing in the Chamber or via an app.

The pandemic not only hurried along the infrastructure for the federal parliament sitting remotely but established new procedures and the experience of using them. No doubt the next parliamentary sitting will clarify how the 47th Parliament plans to proceed during the continuing pandemic.

Figure 1—Percentage of parliamentarians that participated via video link by state/territory elected in 46th Parliament


*The percentage is based on the total number of MPs/Senators (233) who were in parliament since August 2020 and therefore had the option to participate via video link, (including presiding officers); not the total number of MPs/Senators in the 46th Parliament (237).


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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