Article by Alessandro Zerbini | Illustration by Matilde Morri
Euphemistically speaking, 2020 has been a year of great adaptation. Individually and collectively, we have had to accept and adapt to different rhythms and behaviours, and hardly any realm of our societies has been spared from this revolution. Parliaments are no exception. In every country where this institution is present, its members have been called upon to decide whether and how to continue operating. According to the INTER PARES Parliamentary Data Tracker, 3% of surveyed legislatures decided on a partial suspension of business, while 11% declared a dissolvement or a partial adjournment of the session. Conversely, if 12% of inspected parliaments did not change their operating procedures, a significant 48% of legislatures accepted a procedural change, ranging from simple changes in scheduling, to remote votes and reduced quorums.
All the geeky technicalities aside, it is important to understand how well parliaments have fared in the pandemic. After all, this is the very institution that is supposed to represent our interests and voice our concerns. In a time where our constitutional rights are constrained, a strong and efficient parliament is the best guarantee that our sacrifices are proportional to the requirements of the situation. Conversely, if parliament is side-lined, so is our collective voice.
Did parliaments succeed in operating as usual despite the circumstances? Were they sufficiently involved in the discussion on the emergency measures taken to stem the pandemic? If not, what should be done to change this?
A rudimentary way to find answers to these questions is to take the perspective of the individuals who are institutionally called to lead and represent them, namely their speakers. Undoubtedly, these people are best positioned to know the extent to which parliaments have been affected by the pandemic, and whether their voice has been sufficiently heard when sensitive decisions were being made.
A matter of perspective
Looking at the speakers’ public statements on parliaments’ performance, the first impression is one of confusion and disagreement. Some, like the President of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, contend that parliaments have ensured the normal functioning of the legislative process, including by scrutinizing government proposals, and putting forward constructive suggestions to tackle the ongoing crisis. On the contrary, others, like the Speaker of the House of Commons, have complained about the government’s disregard for parliament’s needs and prerogatives, essentially rendering government oversight impossible.
Curiously, it is possible to spot the same diverging opinions in the two chambers of the same bicameral legislature. In Italy and France, for instance, Senate Presidents have criticized the government for rushing into making critical decisions without allowing parliament to properly discuss them; of a different view, the Presidents of the two lower chambers have praised parliament for its continuous efforts and effective scrutiny of the government.
Faced with this irreconcilable divergence of opinions, one cannot help wondering: who is right?
The answer to this question can only be unsatisfactory and ambiguous: both and neither. In fact, judging whether parliament has done its job eventually comes down to a matter of perspective. If one sets the bar low enough, simply having members of parliament show up for work might be a success worth celebrating. On the contrary, if one expects parliamentarians to doggedly supervise every single act of the government and read every page inked by its immense bureaucratic machinery, it is far easier to end up disappointed.
In the case of speakers, how low one sets the bar for parliament to jump over depends on whether their political side is represented in government. Indeed, speakers who have defended their institution’s performance generally belong to the party in government, while those who have complained about the executive’s contempt for it favour the opposing side.
If this is true, then how can we rely on speakers to tell whether parliament has effectively done its job? In short, we cannot. They surely are best positioned to know this, but, unfortunately, political loyalties seem to take priority over institutional duties, both in public statements and deeds.
However, confronting the opposing opinions of speakers belonging to the same legislature, as we did for Italy and France, can help us make up our mind on what we expect parliament to do, both in normal and exceptional times. For instance, if one agrees with the view of optimistic speakers that what could be done has been done, then they can be satisfied with parliament’s overall performance in tackling the pandemic. On the contrary, if one feels that more could be done in terms of holding the government accountable or shaping emergency legislation, then it is clear that parliament is disappointing expectations.
Realizing what we expect parliament to do is not an empty, time-filler exercise.
Parliaments are essential but frequently overlooked institutions, whose role and effectiveness had often been eroding even before they were forced to adopt remote voting procedures. The quality of their performance in dealing with the pandemic is but the consequence of a longstanding process that will continue unaffected even after we have reached herd immunity. If you are disappointed with how little the institution has done to voice your concerns or represent your interests, know that this is not entirely due to the exceptionality of the situation.
Parliamentary institutions, not unlike democracy, are like fragile plants: they need constant care and attention to survive and flourish. To ensure that parliament does better in the future, it is essential that we collectively set the bar as high as possible in terms of parliamentarians’ working time and attendance, quality of legislation, government oversight, and parliamentary ethics. Only continuous scrutiny of the activity of our legislators can hope to bring some improvements, for the good of our generation and the next.