Today, government whips announced that he disagreed with the opposition’s calls for parliament to be recalled so that it could deliberate the economic relief bill. “I’m concerned that if parliament meets, we might create another cluster of infections like at the Lumpini boxing stadium, leading the nation to another crisis,” Chief Whip Wirat Ratanaset said. “Who will be responsible, then?” Parliament is due to meet in only a little over twenty days, he said, encouraging the opposition to be patient.
It sounds like a valid rationale grounded in care about public health. That is, it sounds reasonable for perhaps twenty or thirty years ago, when the wizardry of modern communications technology is not yet so powerful or readily available.
It’s 2020, however, and this excuse does not cut much ice.
Let us avert our gaze from Bangkok for the moment and cast it upon London instead. In the Palace of Westminster, built in 1004, the mother of parliaments resides: an ancient institution that dates back to the 14th century. The House of Commons, the lower house, often crowds into a small, narrow room whose green benches can hardly pack the 650 MPs who are supposed to meet. If there was a room that could ensure that Britain’s entire political class is infected with coronavirus, this would be it.
Yet even this most timeworn of legislatures, in the smallest of chambers, has managed to meet in the past week.
It did so not by contravening public health guidelines and forcing MPs to risk their lives to come and debate. Instead, the House of Commons utilized the wonders of modern technology. A motion was introduced to permit MPs to take part in proceedings via video link, which was duly approved, and MPs can now Zoom into Westminster. Those who did choose to attend in person are required to sit a safe distance apart.
It makes for quite different viewing than the usually rambunctious sessions that characterize popular meetings of the House of Commons — Prime Minister’s Questions, for example, was notably quiet and austere. TV screens are now attached to the walls of the chamber, through which MPs speak. And there have been hiccups; some MPs have been cut off as their home internet connection failed. But regardless, it works: the executive is once again being scrutinized by the legislature.
Most notably, the move was brought about by the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg. For those unfamiliar with British politics, Rees-Mogg is one of Westminster’s most eccentric characters. Nicknamed “the honorable member for the 18th century,” he seems like a man who has wandered into parliament from a different era. His double-breasted suits evokes memories of a time bygone. His sixth child is named Sixtus. He compels his staff to give all non-titled males the rather outdated suffix “Esq.” His first tweet was in Latin. “Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis“, he wrote: the times change, and we change with them.
And indeed he is right. The times change, and we change with them. “In 1349, when the Black Death affected this country, parliament couldn’t sit,” Rees-Mogg said on the floor. “Thanks to modern technology even I have moved on from 1349 and am glad to say that we can sit to carry out these fundamental constitutional functions”
If even Rees-Mogg, attached as he is to ancient and venerable traditions, can compel himself to preside over a virtual parliament, then surely the whips of a government so keen on building ‘Thailand 4.0’ can do so as well?
In these extraordinary times, we must use procedural creativity. There is no reason that a government worth half its salt cannot arrange for parliament to meet virtually, in a manner that allows important legislative work to continue while safeguarding the health of MPs.
It’s time for the opposition to call for, and for the government to work towards, a Thai parliament, Zoom edition.
(Cover image credits: UK Parliament.)