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Australian Parliament set for virtual sittings

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The Australian Parliament is preparing for virtual sittings due to the fresh coronavirus outbreaks in the country, media report said on Tuesday.

Nine Entertainment newspapers reported on Tuesday that parliamentary officials have started working on plans that will allow MPs to debate and vote on legislation via video conference in March, reports Xinhua news agency.

The model is similar to a hybrid model adopted in the UK Parliament in April whereby MPs could participate in the legislative process both in-person and virtually using video conferencing software.

The governing Coalition and Opposition Labor Party in March voted in favour of Parliament being able to meet in “a manner and form not otherwise provided in the standing orders” including virtually in recognition of the difficulties likely presented by the coronavirus pandemic and border closures.

Attorney-General Christian Porter, who is also the leader of the House of Representatives, said in March that the government must have flexibility to respond to challenges that arise from COVID-19.

In order for virtual sittings to go ahead Porter and Mathias Cormann, the leader of the government in the Senate, must reach an agreement with their Labor counterparts Tony Burke and Penny Wong.

A spokesperson for the Australian government told Nine that there were no current plans for Parliament to sit virtually.

“The implementation of a virtual Parliament would only be done with the agreement of the government and the opposition,” she said.

However, with the border between New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria closed indefinitely, some MPs will likely not be able to return to Canberra when Parliament resumes in August.

As well as border issues virtual sittings of Parliament could also face legal issues, with the government seeking advice on whether an MP has to be physically present to vote on legislation.

As of Tuesday, the number of coronavirus cases in Australia stood at 8,755, with 106 deaths.

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