The view from Billinudgel

House of brief
Limiting parliamentary sittings is limiting our democracy

Parliament House. Source: Twitter

Parliament is coming back this week, but not as we know it.

For a single, brief day a small number of members will be socially distanced around the two chambers, their job to rubber stamp Scott Morrison’s JobKeeper package.

Any attempt to initiate other business will be regarded as a distraction, almost sabotage – and of course any opposition would be unconscionable. This is the time for sticking together, which for Morrison means others should blindly obey his caprice.

And once his legislation is nailed down, our elected representatives will be sent home to, well, self-isolate for about four months. They are not required, let alone wanted; Morrison will rule through his national cabinet by fiat, although this ad-hoc arrangement will have no constitutional authority. Or, worse still, he will hand control to his unelected and unaccountable COVID-19 commission.

The justification for this descent into totalitarianism is the urgency of the crisis – we do not want any more dithering, we need immediate action and outcomes. Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition is suspended for the duration of the emergency, and the same applies to any voices who dare question the government’s infallibility.

There will certainly be none from the Murdoch media, who have made it clear that even the most polite and constructive contributions from the Labor Party, and particularly from its leader, Anthony Albanese, are akin to treason – a deliberate attack on Team Australia, by which, of course, they mean Scott Morrison. Patriotism is paramount.

This is hypocrisy verging on derangement. These are the commentators who never rest from piling onto Labor governments in good times or bad, with the claim that they themselves are the ones demanding accountability.

There are some brave politicians and journalists who are still willing to ask questions, to demand, if not transparency, then a little more coherence in the often-dubious rationale behind the edicts. But this is not what democracy entails; we need a more formal and considered critique.

And it is needed more than ever in the frantic surge of restrictions, orders and decisions emanating daily from our leader. The pandemic is not an excuse to close down the parliament, it is a vital reason to keep it going.

Some have suggested compromise. A panel of former judges believe that scrutiny can be maintained through an all-party select committee along the lines implemented in New Zealand. And it would be better than nothing. But why does parliament have to be closed down at all?

If protecting the members from infection is really the reason, surely it would not be beyond the ability of our bureaucrats to devise a method by which MPs can meet online – to continue their work at home. This, after all, is what a very large section of the Australian workforce is expected to do.

Parliamentarians are sufficiently privileged and cossetted as it is, and they should be prepared to put up with minor inconveniences to justify their lurks and perks when the rest of the country is being told to suffer tough-but-necessary measures to keep the place going until we can snap back. In Morrison’s optimistic view it will only be until August anyway, so a few days of remote sittings would be all that was needed to reassure the public that their representatives are as committed as they are to seeing things through.

The PM has told us that all workers are essential. Well, okay, Morrison, time to put your members where your mouth is.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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