By Chris Knaus, originally published in the Guardian 11 May 2020.
A former high court judge and public service chief have written to Scott Morrison calling for the full resumption of parliament, saying the current lack of accountability and scrutiny is “undemocratic and unprecedented”.
A group of 10 former judges, leading lawyers, integrity experts, and public servants have voiced their concern about the lengthy absence of full parliamentary sittings during the Covid-19 response.
Parliament will resume for three days this week but is otherwise adjourned until August, though further sittings may be determined before the end of the week.
Other nations have employed hybrid models of in-person and remote sittings to ensure a full continuation of parliamentary sittings during Covid-19.
The letter sent to Morrison is signed by former high court justice Mary Gaudron, former federal court justice Michael Barker, and former department of prime minister and cabinet secretary Michael Keating, as well as former judges Tony Fitzgerald, David Ipp, Anthony Whealy, Stephen Charles, and Paul Stein.
“Normal parliamentary sittings have been adjourned until August. Individual ministers have been given the power to allocate multibillion dollar discretionary funds and write the rules for major policy response programs,” the letter says.Advertisement
“This is an undemocratic and unprecedented response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Parliamentary democracies around the world are continuing to meet, including through virtual means in the UK and Brazil.”
The former New South Wales director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, leading barrister Geoffrey Watson and integrity expert Joo-Cheong Tham are also signatories to the letter, which was organised by the Centre for Public Integrity.
Labor’s manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, has also urged for the resumption of a more comprehensive sitting calendar.
“It’s ridiculous to have a situation where the rugby league is going to be going back and playing and the prime minister’s saying that parliament can’t meet in the normal way,” Burke told the ABC on Sunday.
In the UK, the hybrid model has allowed questions and statements to be delivered both in-person and via video conferencing platforms, and the House of Commons has been fitted with screens. Questions and statements are organised by the speaker and government two days in advance.
Whealy, a former NSW supreme court judge and Centre for Public Integrity chair, said democracy required scrutiny, and said “current decisions are not fully transparent or democratic.
He said there was no reason parliament in Australia should not follow the UK’s hybrid model.
“We do expect the parliamentarians to set a good example for those who have to go out to the public sphere, and when you examine it, there’s no reason at all that we cannot have a hybrid system operating,” Whealy told the Guardian last month.
Australia has also established a new Senate select committee to examine the government’s broader Australian response to Covid-19.
That committee has already scrutinised the government’s Covid-19 phone app, the Ruby Princess debacle, the jobseeker and jobkeeper programs, and other elements of the government’s response.
The legislative program for this week includes a privacy-related bill to ensure data collected by the Covidsafe phone app is available only to state and territory health authorities.
Morrison has previously said that if the forthcoming sitting goes well, there may be further parliamentary sittings before the end of June.