By Katie Burgess, originally published in the Canberra Times 3rd April 2020.
A former NSW Supreme Court judge says a new body must be set up to oversee Australia’s response to the coronavirus epidemic, as parliament is shut down for months due to the outbreak.
Parliament will resume sitting for one day next Wednesday to pass the third of the Morrison government’s COVID-19 package, including the $130 billion wage subsidy scheme.
It was originally suspended from March 23 until August 11 – nearly five months – as the government tried to limit the spread of the virus.
Analysis from the Centre for Public Integrity showed 21 sitting days had been slashed in this time, a near 30 per cent reduction on the 72 scheduled sitting days for the House of Representatives originally planned for this year.
Other democracies had cut up to nine sitting days, and put in place other accountability measures to balance the sweeping powers in use to slow the spread of the virus, making Australia an “outlier” when it came to our drastic shutdown.
New Zealand set up an Epidemic Response Committee chaired by the leader of the Opposition to monitor the government’s management of the pandemic.
In the United Kingdom, a working group was created to find ways members of parliament could use remote collaboration and videoconferencing to continue scrutinising the government and its legislation.
But former NSW Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy, who is chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, said no such safeguards had been set up in Australia.
He urged parliamentarians to set up a committee to oversee the coronavirus response when parliament sits next week.
“If it doesn’t happen, the country goes on without any supervision, any questioning,” Mr Whealy said.
Independent MP Helen Haines will move a motion to set up a select committee to examine the coronavirus response in the House of Representatives next week.
Mr Whealy said shutting down the parliament for as long as Australia had “eats into parliamentary democracy quite considerably”.
“While I can understand why they’ve done it, the fact there’s an enormous gap in our parliamentary year highlights the need for us to have a body formed that can still act as a supervisory or questioning body over what the government is doing in this crisis,” Mr Whealy said.
While the Opposition and National Cabinet had a role to play, Mr Whealy said, “the fundamental point is you can’t function as a democracy unless you have a properly performing parliament.”
This was especially important due to the extraordinary powers being exercised by governments to contain the virus, with Australians largely confined to their homes and quarantines being monitored by the police and military.
While it was reasonable to fine people for breaking social distancing rules by sitting on a park bench, it only remained so if there were proper checks and balances, Mr Whealy said.
“For our democracy to remain solid we require transparency and openness about decision-making. If you don’t you go down the route of a pseudo-totalitarian society,” Mr Whealy said.
“The longer this goes on, the greater the need for oversight at a parliamentary level.”