The Politics    Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Postponing democracy

By Paddy Manning

Postponing democracy

© Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The PM’s instincts are autocratic

Suspending federal parliament for five months and appointing a panel of businesspeople to manage the economic response to the coronavirus pandemic are two sides of the same coin, and confirm Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s instincts are more autocratic than democratic, more corporate than official. The new National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), chaired by former Fortescue Metals chief Nev Power, will coordinate advice to the government on “actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic”. What Power would know about managing a pandemic is unclear, but what is obvious is that the handpicked mining executive will be unconstrained by the codes and traditions of the public service, and will owe his loyalty to the PM alone. As Morrison himself said this afternoon: “When I rang him the other day, I simply said, ‘Nev, I need you to serve your country.’ And he quickly responded … and he stepped up.” It’s another step along the slippery slope to Trumpism.

On Monday night, once its fiscal stimulus and supply bills had passed, the government moved to effectively suspend parliamentary sittings until August 11, after earlier announcing that the budget would be postponed until October. In the ensuing debate, House leader Christian Porter explained that “some risk attaches to the operation of parliament, particularly during what is anticipated to be the peak point in the transmission of the coronavirus”. Labor and the Greens opposed the motion. Manager of Opposition business Tony Burke said, “I will be more than surprised if we can go from now until August and find that the legislation we put through the parliament today is all the nation needs for Australia to handle this pandemic, all the nation needs to deal with the crisis of unemployment and recession that we’ll be facing.” Greens leader Adam Bandt pointed out the parliament had that day fixed problems with the government’s rushed stimulus package, including extending the coronavirus supplement to students. “We just haven’t had the time, because we’ve all agreed to come here in good faith and work on this on an urgent basis, to work out exactly who’s been left behind and what more will be needed.”

Passage of the stimulus had been agreed urgently precisely because, as Bandt said, parliament was expected to reconvene “in the not-too-distant future [to] give us a chance, after being with our constituents and seeing how this is playing out, to come back and say, ‘Look, some changes are needed’ … the starting point in an emergency is to have more democracy, not less. The presumption that simply because there is a crisis we should cancel parliament is a worrying one.” Finally, shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers pointed out that even though the parliament had approved $83 billion of expenditure in a single day and with very little notice, there would soon be plenty more work for the parliament to do, including on expected third, fourth and fifth waves of stimulus. “If we know now that that additional support is necessary, then let’s get cracking on it.”

Still, the suspension motion passed, albeit followed by another motion that would allow the parliament to meet differently than under the normal standing orders – for example, online.

Since Monday night a string of commentators have lamented the suspension. One of our democracy’s guardian angels, Margo Kingston, tweeted on Monday night: “the people have lost their parliament for 5 months. Devastating for accountability of the federal government – politicians and public servants – to the people … shocked an electronic workaround wasn’t found … shocked parliament was not considered an essential service.” In an important column yesterday, The Australian’s Peter van Onselen wrote [$] that the parliament “kept operating through both World Wars. It operated during the Great Depression and even the Spanish Influenza of 1919. In those days we didn’t have the technology nor know-how we do today to make it even easier to keep parliament open”. In today’s Crikey, Guy Rundle argues [$] MPs should continue to do their jobs – “no excuses” – and former treasurer Wayne Swan tweeted this morning: “It’s in the national interest we all do our best to work together. The decision to effectively abolish the Parliament for months Is decisive, partisan & revealing. This Govt Is scared & rattled. That’s not in the national interest.”

Despite the revised sitting schedule introduced by the government on Monday night, Tony Burke has predicted the parliament will almost certainly be recalled before August. It will need to, because so far the Morrison government keeps getting its coronavirus response wrong. Debacles like the Ruby Princess, and Government Services Minister Stuart Robert’s abject failure to do his job, highlight exactly why we need the federal parliament to hold this government to account.

“Listening to the PM like everyone here in Aust & what I understood was. ‘It’s essential. Unless it’s not. Then it’s essentially not essential. I can’t be clearer’ Plus people can buy a new shirt at a shopping centre? WTF? PM just had a shocker. Surely should be in lockdown now.”

Retired cricketing great Shane Warne reacts to the prime minister’s confusing press conference last night.

“My messages is we all have clear and distinct responsibilities of the border – it is not an amorphous concept. We have to work together closely to make sure things don’t fall through cracks, but we have to be clear about who is responsible for what … The decision to allow them off in relation to the health and biosecurity issue was one of the New South Wales Health … I’m not here to apportion blame, we are all here together in Australia.”

Border Force commissioner Michael Outram blames NSW Health for a decision to allow passengers from the Ruby Princess to disembark without testing for COVID-19 infection.

Coronavirus, part three: The economics of a shutdown
With hundreds of thousands of Australians losing their jobs, the economic cost of coronavirus is becoming clear. Today, chief economist at The Australia Institute Richard Dennis on how we can get through the next 18 months.

The amount that former resources minister Matt Canavan charged taxpayers to charter a flight to attend the opening of the Byerwen coalmine, where he gave a speech attacking “self-indulgent” environmentalists.

“Normal school operations must end to put the health and safety of students and staff first on school sites. It is now essential that an immediate transition to an emergency mode of school operation be put in place with minimum staffing (to support essential frontline services workers who are unable to care for their children during this crisis) and necessary systems to provide maximum health protection for all present on sites. Staff not rostered on minimal supervision are to work from home providing educational continuity as far as is practicable for students online during term time.”

The president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Angelo Gavrielatos, after the executive resolved to suspend school operations from next Monday.

The list

“I don’t think it’s inevitable. It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared … We know all the good people.”

— Donald Trump, press conference, Feb 28

“The prognosis from industry group Live Performance Australia … estimates that the economic and cultural cost of the coronavirus shutdown for the live performance industry is likely to exceed more than half a billion dollars, and thousands of jobs, over coming months. In truth though, while everyone can see the writing on the wall, nobody really knows what it means yet, nor what the long-term impact will be.”

“Do you exhibit a ‘baby boomer state of mind’? Compare what you see in the inkblot images to responses from boomers and non-boomers alike.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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