It was on Tuesday 11 May 2021 that we first heard rumours of an upcoming filibuster in Parliament. None of us at the Records Office had experienced it ourselves, but most of us had heard enough to know what was in store for us.
A filibuster is when one or more members of a legislative assembly prolong a debate in order to prevent or delay a legislative action. The history of filibusters reaches all the way back to the Senate of Ancient Rome, although in modern times it is perhaps better known from the American Senate. In Finland, a filibuster is called “jarrutuskeskustelu”, which means “obstruction debate”.
Filibusters in the Parliament of Finland are possible because, according to the constitution, a Member of Parliament has an unlimited right to speak, although the political parties have agreed to limit speeches to five or seven minutes in regular debates.
There have been half a dozen major filibusters during the 115 years of the unicameral parliament of Finland, the longest lasting approximately a week. The previous filibuster was in 1994, when some Members of Parliament tried to delay Finland’s decision on joining the EU. It lasted for 99 hours uninterrupted.
So what is different now?
This filibuster had great potential for international repercussions. Mostly the filibusters in Finland have dealt with domestic matters, but this one concerned Finland’s participation in the European Union’s €750 billion Covid-19 recovery plan. Some of the MPs—the nationalist True Finns party in particular—opposed the deal and considered it unfavourable for Finland, aiming to obstruct Parliament in passing the deal. Since the recovery plan had to be ratified by every country in the Union, turning it down could have had a major impact on the entire plan, or at least caused great uncertainty throughout the Union. In that sense, the stakes were high.
From a parliamentary reporter’s point of view, a filibuster creates many kinds of stress. Uncertainty is one of them. Often filibusters aim to prolong a debate past a certain date to prevent a decision, but this time the voting was just supposed to be held after the debate, so there was no definite end point. Some members of the True Finns Party threatened to keep the debate going until Midsummer—24 June—and, although most of us probably did not take it seriously, it contributed to the uncertainty: if a debate goes on uninterrupted for days or even weeks, how will it affect your physical and mental health and your private life?
Another stress factor is the sudden change of plans. As parliamentary reporters, we are used to irregular shifts, but not to debates that go on for multiple days. Since Thursday 13 May was a national holiday, many of us had applied for a long weekend off, only to see these plans cancelled and turned into a weekend of work.
Yet another concern was, of course, the physical part: staying healthy and getting some rest while trying to keep up with the pace of the debate. In the previous filibuster in 1994, employees were extremely exhausted because they had only a few hours of rest and there were very few freelancers able to help out. We have heard many stories about how it took several weeks for the employees to recover.
The 2021 filibuster, although technically divided into a few separate debates, started Tuesday 11 May in the afternoon. The first debate lasted some 14 hours until the matter was adjourned until the next afternoon, so many of us had worked up to 19 hours on the first day.
Now that we knew this might go on for a long time, we started making special arrangements. Usually, we do not really have a day shift or night shift; you come to work before the debate starts in the afternoon and go home when the records are published. Most debates last only four to five hours, so this is rarely a problem. This time, we decided to introduce day and evening shifts during the filibuster to avoid employees getting exhausted. The day shift would work from approximately 9 am to 5 pm, and the evening shift from 2 pm to 10 pm.
Only two reporters each day were needed in the plenary hall, working in rotating 12-hour shifts (from 8 am to 10 pm and 10 pm to 8 am) and keeping an eye on any important occurrences in the hall, while all the others, due to Covid regulations, worked from home using our digital audio recording system. Although technically easy, you can hardly call the night shift comfortable: I remember sitting in the almost empty plenary hall on the second night of the debate, pinching myself to stay awake. The work relies completely on audio recordings and shorthand is not used in the process.
A new record speech
No records would be published online during the night. Instead, the morning shift would pick up where the evening shift left and start closing the gap. Obviously, the records would trail behind by several hours, but this was the healthiest way to cope with the situation: keeping the night shift to a minimum and letting the other employees sleep so they could start fresh the next day. The central office of the Parliament supported this decision.
Fortunately, there were some long breaks for committee meetings, helping us to close the gap.
Remote work helped us too by saving a lot of commuting between home and work.
The debate finally ended Saturday 15 May at 4 o’clock in the morning. Before that, the debate had culminated in a new national record speech when one member of the True Finns Party spoke for more than 8 hours straight during the last evening and night. The previous record was six and a half hours. We were able to finish and publish the complete records on Saturday afternoon, roughly 10 hours after the end of the debate.
During the debate, the True Finns Party tried to adjourn the debate by several weeks or even months—even as late as September—but did not succeed. It would have stopped the filibuster, but no one knows exactly how it would have affected the EU recovery plan. Would it have encouraged other EU countries to try something similar, further delaying the process? Parliament finally ratified the deal the following week, but it was a controversial matter among many parties.
The filibuster comprised 51 hours of debate from Tuesday afternoon until early Saturday morning. Although it was easier on the employees than the previous one in 1994 and we were able to work remotely, the employees still worked very long hours due to night shifts and had to cancel their regular days off. The filibuster spawned a debate between the workforce and the Administration about minimum rest periods and overtime compensation.
Whatever the outcome of that dialogue, I dare say that all of us at the Records Office think that one filibuster in a generation is enough.
Niklas Varisto works as parliamentary reporter in the Records Office of the Finnish Parliament.