Okay, my little twitter bubble is talking about virtual Parliaments, and I have some thoughts, so here's a thread.

(I said some of this stuff in replies to a friend last night, but this way it's all in one place!) /1

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I want to set aside his practical arguments (technology, standing orders, constitutional restrictions, etc.) for now - not because they're unimportant, but b/c they're all theoretically solvable - and focus on the other side of his argument - the effect on political culture. /3
I think I broadly agree with the thrust of his argument. The fact is, Parliament, in our system of government, is every bit as much about the *rituals* of governing and the utilization of the *symbols* of state power, as it is about the actual considerations/enactment of laws. /4
Far from being archaic or silly, those rituals and symbols are *of equal importance* to the practical business of Parliament (yes, equal!). This is because they are not separate, but rather complementary to the practical bits. /5
Parliament is an institution whose membership changes regularly, and where - until somewhat recently in our history - it hasn't always been a guarantee that its members would be fully literate.

The rituals and symbols are a way of preserving our shared and inherited history. /6
But they do more than that! In telling stories in the heart of the State, they also establish - over centuries of repetition - which uses of power are legitimate and which are not. In essence, they are the reason that the practical parts *work in the way we expect them to.* /7
So, does this mean virtual Parliaments are an intractable non-starter, because half of Parliament's functioning would thus be impaired?

Well, no. And this is where I'll respectfully disagree with @journo_dale, even if I thought he made some decent points. /8
All the symbolic/ritual aspects of Parliament *came from something real.* Usually, that real thing was some sort of crisis that Parliament wasn't, at the time, equipped to respond to.

The rituals are reminders of what was gained, what was lost, and what mustn't be forgotten. /9
When faced with a crisis, NO responsive Parliament can EVER afford to say "we can't afford to be responsive this time because it would upset our esoteric customs." So Parliament adapts. That means all of Parliament - including the symbols. /10
Digitizing Parliamentary proceedings doesn't mean abandoning Parliamentary symbols. It's the opposite - the symbols *lead* - they are the guideposts that would enable parliamentarians to understand the new world, offering a sense of legitimacy, authority, and continuity. /11
In practical terms, for a fully virtual Parliament that might mean developing a "virtual mace" of some sort. Or a virtual equivalent to the Speaker's parade that kicks off proceedings. But I won't speculate too much. /12
THAT SAID, I also don't think I need to speculate. For practical/technical reasons, a fully virtual Parliament is unlikely to happen now or in the near future. And that's for the best (for reasons Smith outlines in the 3rd-last paragraph of his piece, which which I agree). /13
A fully virtual Parliament (essentially, a giant videoconference) would, in general, not be very healthy for a democracy, and frankly the political discontinuity isn't what we need right now.

But a skeleton Parliament *also* ISN'T the answer to the current crisis. /14
Damaging as uprooting the House might be, asking 90% of it to stay away for Lord-knows-how-many-months would be undemocratic and disenfranchising to pretty much the entire country that lives more than driving distance away from Ottawa (i.e. nearly all of Canada). /15
IMO, a better solution (if practically doable), is to maintain the physical House, with its staff and a quorum of MPs, WHILE establishing options and rules changes for MPs further away to connect virtually, to the point where they can speak and even vote from outside Ottawa. /16
In other words: don't convene a virtual Parliament: convene Parliament with most members in virtual attendance.

Based on the Speaker's letter to the Government House Leader last week, it seems this is the solution the House Administration is working towards. Good! /17
Four caveats:

1) Of course, everything I've just said about the House should apply to the Senate as well.

2) The practical difficulties do still matter, and resolving them fully during a period of crisis might not be doable.

3) I don't apply these same arguments in normal times. Outside of emergency situations, MPs should always physically be in the House to debate and vote (although I am open to the idea of MPs absent for valid reasons giving their vote to a colleague in proxy).

And finally, 4) Let committees meet virtually if they need too. Unlike the House, committees are entirely practical bodies. I also think delegating extensive parliamentary oversight powers to committees during crises is reasonable.

Thanks for reading!

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