Committees selected by Zoom, the great leveler

Select committees, a crucial part of the legislative process, have become more accessible to the public through Zoom online video conferencing.

While MPs who chair select committees say there’s nothing like having senior officials in the room with them when they need a toast, they recognize that Zoom is quite the leveler for many bidders and members themselves.

Parliament’s Education and Manpower Committee meeting on Zoom
Photo: Provided

Select committees are where the public can express their views on legislation and issues considered by MPs, and members can hold government and officials to account.

Since the start of the pandemic, committee meetings have largely been hosted by Zoom, creating a new landscape for the operation of select committees and a new set of challenges for MPs who chair those committees.

Eugenie Sage of the Green Party, who leads the environment committee, said Zoom access has made it much easier for people to submit their submissions.

“We heard a lot of submissions – there were over 3,000 submissions on the Built Natural Environments Bill Exposure Draft survey, and over 300 bidders were submitted. This was all done by Zoom,” she said.

“There’s a major benefit because it means people don’t have to travel – so reduced emissions – and that makes it more time-efficient, both for the committee and for members of the public.

“You lose a bit of that sense of presence in the room, but it meant we could hear a lot of people in a relatively short amount of time. ”

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Eugenie Page speaks at an in-person select committee meeting
Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Zoom brings a certain flatness to an exchange. Those awkward moments when someone has started talking but is still silent can be humbling and disarming. We can see this for ourselves during these public sessions, streamed live on each select committee’s webpage.

“The exchanges don’t flow freely, you don’t pick up the gestures and the expressions,” said Duncan Webb, chairman of the Finance and Expenditure Committee, the largest of the House committees.

“If you’re in the room and you have a sender, the sender can see who’s engaged and who’s not, and just see those kind of micro-expressions, the nods and the raised eyebrows, that kind of stuff – which may or may not be encouraging. I think it’s important for depositors to see what’s going on around them if they choose to come and be in parliament in person.

Presiding over Zoom requires a few new tools, and for Community and Social Services Committee Chair Angie Warren-Clark, the change hasn’t been without teething problems. When the first lockdown hit, she had vision problems as she recovered from eye surgery, leaving her struggling to see things clearly as she navigated committee meetings via laptop .

Labor MP Duncan Webb on Parliament's powerful Privileges Committee

Labor MP Duncan Webb on Parliament’s powerful Privileges Committee
Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

She now has a two-screen system that most committee chairs use – it helps her manage debates better – plus a system where members raise their hands when they want to ask a supplementary question.

“So it’s about finding accommodations and acknowledging that some people sometimes can’t come in. Senders may not be able to connect, or they may not be on screen and talking, and all that kind of stuff. So it’s a traveling feast, and so anything can fall on you.

Arbitrator

The role of the chairman of the select committee, who strives to be impartial and to give people a fair chance to speak, is sometimes likened to that of an arbitrator.

As a referee there are moments in the game that will put you to the test, for example the experience of Education and Workforce Committee Chair Marja Lubeck in chairing a recent committee hearing attended by officials from immigration and the Department of Business, Innovation and Jobs. When National MP Erica Stanford vigorously requested more time for her supplementary questions on the issue of investor visas, Lubeck had the challenge of responding to Stanford’s strong interest in the issue while juggling the need to meet the deadline. and not to encroach on other members’ allowances, as the MP asked another question and asked several before the chairman could finally be heard to restore order to the digital din.

“That’s when Zoom gets difficult,” admitted Lubeck.

“You are a bit like Mr. President. You can call your members to order. But doing that on the internet is different from sitting around a table and looking someone in the eye and saying “you’ve had your turn, we’ll move on to someone else next.”

“People can just ignore you and keep talking, so it’s a bit more difficult.

“But as president, I guess you just have to make sure that you give somebody a fair race, but also make sure that, if somebody has a particular passion for this subject, that does not mean that he has to take up all the space. Others have to step in. So it’s a bit like playing referee.

Defuser

Working in select committees is quite different from working in the legislative chamber of Parliament – ​​in the daily rhythms of the committee, MPs from all political backgrounds work reasonably collaboratively. But, as Duncan Webb says, the committee is still essentially a microcosm of what happens in Parliament.

“If you have a contentious case and people are yelling at each other and getting angry, it’s a lot easier to de-escalate on Zoom, because arguing is pretty hard on Zoom. It just doesn’t flow as easily as it does freely in the room, and it looks like chaos because of the relatively primitive system used,” he said.

Labor MP Marja Lubeck in select committee

Labor MP Marja Lubeck in select committee
Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

If arguing is more difficult on Zoom, sometimes everything can be difficult too.

“There’s a lot more focus, and I think all the members feel that after hours of Zoom calls, it can be quite exhausting,” Eugenie Sage said.

“We make sure we have a few five-minute breaks. But it’s easier to do everything Zoom than to do a hybrid with some on Zoom and some in the room.

“There has been tremendous support in terms of technical assistance by Parliament to make Zoom calls work,” not to mention the work of clerks who work behind the scenes to keep the process running and organize bidders to participate.

Accessibility

According to Angie Warren-Clark, Zoom helps make Parliament more accessible to members of the public, which she said the Parliamentary Services and MPs have worked hard to achieve.

“I think it has increased community involvement. You don’t have to go to Parliament now to submit your proposal, and I think that’s a good thing. And I also think it’s probably a little safer now, you can chat from your own room.

She and Webb say the days of in-person select committees during weeks when Parliament is not in session and when MPs are not usually in Wellington are probably over.

Labor MP Angie Warren-Clark in select committee

Labor MP Angie Warren-Clark in select committee
Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

“When we meet outside of sitting weeks, in the past we would have flown to Wellington to be in the room, and I don’t think we’ll ever go back on that. If you think about it, there are a lot of people flying in for what could be a 2 hour meeting. It’s so much more efficient to do it that way. Zoom offers a better choice when it comes to connectivity,” Warren-Clark said.

Webb said meeting the officials in person in the room remains an ideal way to do the job they need to do, “which is to really interrogate legislation and government activity,” but he accepts that Zoom has its place.

A sometimes clumsy process, lacking nuance compared to the in-person experience, doing Zoom-restricted commissions is nonetheless rather a good leveler that improves overall public accessibility to Parliament.


The House of RNZ – Parliamentary Legislation, Issues and Ideas – is achieved through funding from Parliament.

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