Thursday, April 9, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Power house
The COVID-19 Senate committee is set to have huge impact

Image of Katy Gallagher

Katy Gallager. Via Twitter

The new Senate Select Committee on COVID-19, chaired by Labor senator for the ACT Katy Gallagher, has an unusually important job ahead of it, being responsible for scrutiny of an unprecedented $214 billion of federal government spending across three stimulus packages responding to the pandemic, over a four-month period during which the federal parliament is not expected to sit. Perhaps this will prove to be another moment in the Australian parliament’s drift towards higher-profile, higher-impact committee hearings – akin to the powerful US congressional inquiries that regularly generate global headlines. Think of Liberal backbencher Tim Wilson’s chairmanship of the Standing Committee on Economics in the lead-up to the last election, which generated controversy for all the wrong reasons with its inquiry into franking credit reform, but undoubtedly had a huge political impact. Or think of his party colleague Andrew Hastie’s chairmanship of the powerful Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which has occasionally resulted in headlines unwelcome to the government, as when he outed Chinese billionaire Chau Chak Wing as the subject of an FBI investigation. 

Gallagher acknowledges there will be huge expectations of the COVID-19 committee. “I feel it coming at me,” she says. “The committee was established yesterday; we’ve had our first meeting this morning. We elected a chair and deputy chair [Liberal senator James Paterson] and agreed to have our first meeting next week. And I asked, as chair, that members of the committee give some prior consideration to the matters they would like considered at that first meeting. It’s an ongoing inquiry and this committee will have responsibility for this urgent end of the business but also implementation and recovery … I think the nature of the committee’s inquiry will change over time, but my feeling as chair is that in these first four months it will have a role similar to an estimates committee in terms of scrutiny of government expenditure.  

“I think it’s going to be pretty busy, particularly while the parliament’s not sitting, and I think the other members of the committee understand that, and they also feel the weight of responsibility that’s been given to them by the Senate chamber. I mean, we are, while the Senate’s not sitting, acting as the scrutiny on the side of the Senate. So, we get all that, and it is a big job, and we do need to be focused.” 

Gallagher says there is nothing to stop the Senate committee calling for lower-house MPs or ministers to attend by invitation, voluntarily, or as a “matter of comity” between the two houses. “I imagine there will be interest from members to speak with ministers with responsibility for the COVID-19 response.” 

The committee has extremely wide terms of reference – anything to do with the pandemic – and Gallagher accepts there is potential for the inquiry to get lost down rabbit holes. It was felt, however, that given the government has such wide latitude under its pandemic response laws, the committee did not want to get overly prescriptive with its terms of reference. With the likely undivided attention of the press gallery, Gallagher agrees there is potential for the hearings to have real impact. “If you’ve got an inquiry like this one,” she says, “with the terms of reference it does, with the importance of the issue at hand, and unprecedented on so many levels – whether it be expenditure powers, the lack of parliament sittings – there’s a whole range of different issues that make this committee, I think, pretty important. I think it’ll get a lot of focus.” 

The Australia Institute was instrumental in calling for the establishment of a COVID-19 oversight committee – perhaps modelled on that established by the Ardern government in New Zealand, which only shut down parliament for five weeks. Executive director Ben Oquist welcomed the creation of the Senate inquiry as a necessary building block to public trust and accountability, even though his first preference was that parliament should continue to sit. “I think people forget that parliament is supreme,” says Oquist. “It’s not executive government, parliament is and should be supreme. And we’re having such big civil liberties curtailments, massive government programs on a scale never seen before … [The legislation was] passed in a day, and we’re going to spend the next six months finding out what’s wrong with it.

“When parliament’s not sitting, a strong oversight committee that engages with the public and allows the public to see it will help produce better outcomes.”

The government supported the establishment of the COVID-19 inquiry, with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann telling the Senate last night: “We welcome the scrutiny. We do believe there is a need for scrutiny. We understand and appreciate that, in these extraordinary times, the government has been required to make very significant decisions, and, as one of the senators mentioned earlier, there is no manual on how to deal with this crisis in the best possible way. We’re making judgements every single day to the best of our ability, but it is appropriate that those judgements that we make are scrutinised and challenged to help us make even better decisions as we go along.”

The bipartisanship seen in the passage of the stimulus legislation to date is not going to last. The COVID-19 committee hearings will be vital.

“[Employers are] going have to actually prove that you can’t get the JobKeeper and also prove that you’re suffering because … not all employers are. And just because there’s a little bit of a downturn isn’t justification for cutting hours, and we won’t be accepting any proposals to cut pay.”

After working closely with the government on the JobKeeper package, ACTU secretary Sally McManus rules out more industry-wide compromises with employers.

“The Australian Public Service remains a critical part of our efforts to minimise the impacts on COVID-19 on the Australian economy for workers and their families. Everyone from the Prime Minister down appreciates the outstanding work the APS is doing. Every APS employee will have someone in their families, or know someone, affected by the current economic circumstances. While communities are doing it tough, it’s important the APS helps share the economic burden.”

Ben Morton, assistant minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, confirms federal public servants will have their salaries frozen.

How coronavirus could break the NBN
The NBN is facing its most crucial test yet, and there are serious questions over whether the network will handle the unprecedented demand. Today, Paddy Manning on our virtual lifeline and how it’s holding up.

The real unemployment rate in Australia in March, according to Roy Morgan research, indicating a doubling since February – a bad sign ahead of official figures out next Thursday.

“Top-down stress tests indicate that even if there is no economic recovery in the second half of 2020 (so that asset quality issues grow) banks will remain above their minimum capital ratios, although they may need to make use of their capital conservation buffer. Reverse stress tests’ – which estimate the magnitude and duration of stress that would result in banks breaching various capital thresholds – suggest that Australian banks would only breach their prudential minimums if a severe downturn lasts for at least 12 months, with the unemployment rate rising by more than 10 percentage points.”

The Reserve Bank of Australia, in today’s financial stability review, notes that while there was elevated demand for cash withdrawals in the second half of March – which has since abated – Australia’s banks remain well capitalised.

The list

“But if speed is the essence of grime, then Stormzy’s career trajectory has been faster, and upwardly steeper, than that of any grime artist before him. Nor have his barrier-smashing efforts been confined to the music industry: in 2018 he founded a Cambridge University scholarship in his name, to fund undergraduate places for financially disadvantaged black students, and he also teamed up with Penguin Random House to launch a publishing imprint, #Merky Books, aimed at fostering young and diverse authors. “I done a scholarship for the kids, they said it’s racist /That’s not anti-white, it’s pro-black”, he raps on ‘Crown’, from the new album, Heavy Is the Head.”

“Ian Rintoul of Refugee Action Coalition says that in mid-March ‘the two latest flights that were meant to go from Nauru and from PNG [to the US] were cancelled’. US officials who had been facilitating the transfer also left, to get home before borders closed. Refugees who had been accepted into the program had undertaken cultural courses and were completing their final course of medications to prepare. Then they were told the move was cancelled. Shaminda, a refugee who is residing in a hotel in Port Moresby, confirms this. ‘Some of the men have been told that the US program has stopped because of Covid,’ he says. ‘They don’t know when it will begin again.’”

“Our bus, the only vehicle on the road, mounts the truss bridge. Crisscrossing girders slice the pale morning light into shafts and planes that create layers of wispy veils. At the vanishing point, just under a kilometre away, stiff-backed soldiers shimmer, mirage-like. Beside me, my friend Emma squirms, sighing, ‘If only I could film this.’ We have a camera, but it stays in the bag. We have been told not to take photos of bridges or soldiers or people on the streets. Mobile phones are forbidden; we left ours with Chinese friends in the border city of Dandong, in China’s north-eastern Liaoning Province. When you go to North Korea, even just for a day, it is important to follow the rules.”

Paddy Manning

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?


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