On balance, the parliament should sit through the pandemic response
It was welcome news in the Nine papers this morning that a Senate select committee will be established to scrutinise the sweeping health measures and massive budget outlays made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, given Wednesday’s sitting of the federal parliament is the last until August. The move follows a call last week, from a panel of six former judges convened by The Australia Institute, for creation of a multi-party parliamentary oversight committee, along the lines of New Zealand’s Epidemic Response Committee, while parliament is not sitting. Manager of Opposition business Tony Burke said negotiations to set up the Senate select committee, being handled by Labor’s upper-house leader Penny Wong, were progressing well. “Effectively they have been in our parliament the most powerful committees that we’ve had,” he said. “They’ve historically been more powerful than joint committees in terms of being able to hold governments to account.”
Burke was quick to point out, however, that a new oversight committee was no substitute for parliamentary debate, and called for extra sittings to be scheduled in a few weeks in the expectation that there will be more legislative work to do, since the $130 billion JobKeeper package is being rushed through the parliament in a single day. “I know Scott Morrison doesn’t like the parliament much,” Burke said, “but at the moment we have a public show of national unity every time it meets.”
Attorney-general and House leader Christian Porter, speaking on ABC’s RN Breakfast wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss was about. “Parliament’s a very flexible organ of government,” said Porter. “The power exists to recall parliament any time it’s needed, which is exactly what we’re doing on Wednesday and we’re doing it in a flexible way. But why would we set down a regular sitting schedule over the coming weeks and months, in the most irregular time Australia has ever known? What is the point of that? Why we are being dragged into these bizarre procedural debates? If people want to sit out there during the greatest economic crisis Australia’s experienced and read practice and procedure of the House of Representatives, good luck to them. But we’ve got better things to do.”
University of Sydney constitutional lawyer Professor Anne Twomey told The Monthly Today that debate about the looming months without scheduled sittings has been “slightly hysterical” given that there is always a long winter recess, and the legislature will continue to hold the executive to account through the important work of parliamentary committees, which can compel witnesses to appear and subpoena documents. While much of the parliamentary debate is theatrical – almost every Question Time, for example – Twomey says committees can wield real power and force the government to answer questions. Twomey welcomed reports that a new oversight committee would be set up but cautioned that it should not detract from the responsibility of existing committees with expertise, such as the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation. This committee would be particularly important in overseeing the government’s use of its so-called Henry VIII powers under the Biosecurity Act 2015, allowing regulations to override other statutes. Nevertheless, Twomey favours more sitting weeks to instil public confidence. Last week she gave a lecture at the University of Melbourne, building on her argument in The Conversation that there is no constitutional impediment to a virtual sitting with MPs voting electronically. But Twomey does not believe there is an accountability deficit in the federal sphere, and this morning’s healthy Newspoll [$] bounce for the prime minister and the Coalition government suggests most Australians aren’t too worried about it either.
“It would be preferable for the houses at both the Commonwealth and the state level to continue to sit, at least a bit, during this period, so people can see that scrutiny is happening,” says Twomey, who acknowledges that her position is a little in-between. “I am perhaps less concerned than others because I do recognise that there is accountability still through the parliamentary committee system, which is often very effective, and perhaps sometimes more effective in achieving accountability because it generally works on a bipartisan basis and is less focused on theatrics and drama, and more on substance.
“The alternative definition that Sally McManus offered was that someone should be able to be in … the system, if they had any expectation of a shift at any point in time in the future. Now, I just don’t see that as a workable definition.”
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter mischaracterises a comment from ACTU secretary Sally McManus, who told the ABC’s Insiders program that casual workers without 12 months’ service with a single employer should receive JobKeeper allowance if they “could have reasonably expected to be working if it were not for the coronavirus”.
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The possible windfall to private health insurers – amounting to as much as $750 per policyholder – that are still collecting premiums but will pay out much less for elective surgery and other health services over the next six months.
“The Morrison Government has today brought forward the release of $5 million from its Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund to support public interest journalism during COVID-19 … The Fund has been enhanced – with more organisations eligible to apply and a greater emphasis on sustainability. This round will be open to regional and metropolitan publishers and content service providers producing public interest journalism.”
“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.”
“Weather is concerned with nature, nurture and what lies ahead, with how to be a mother in a polluted present and what to think about a precarious future. It too attempts to neutralise the indignities of contemporary life with mordant wit.”
“The nightly applause for health and supermarket workers, which started in Italy, takes place across Spain. At 8pm, we open our windows to the street and to our neighbours and start to clap. In the building opposite, a couple and their young children are on their balcony on the sixth floor, the kids clearly relishing the chance to make noise after another day indoors."
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
It was welcome news in the Nine papers this morning that a Senate select committee will be established to scrutinise the sweeping health measures and massive budget outlays made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, given Wednesday’s sitting of the federal parliament is the last until August. The move follows a call last week, from a panel of six former judges convened by The Australia Institute, for creation of a multi-party parliamentary oversight committee, along the lines of New Zealand’s Epidemic Response Committee, while parliament is not sitting. Manager of...
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