By Chris Knaus, originally published in the Guardian 28 April 2020.

New briefing paper: Parliamentary sittings during COVID-19 crisis.

Australia should urgently adopt the United Kingdom parliament’s hybrid model of in-person and online attendance to allow for greater scrutiny of government during the Covid-19 crisis, according to former senior judge and integrity expert Anthony Whealy.

Parliament is scheduled to resume for three days in May, which prime minister Scott Morrison has referred to as a “trial”, as parliament had adjourned until August.

Further sittings are likely to be determined by the government and opposition before parliament adjourns on 14 May, and a new Senate select committee has also been established to examine the broader Australian response to Covid-19.

Whealy and the Centre for Public Integrity have released a short briefing paper that recommends the adoption of the UK’s hybrid model, saying it would allow for a more comprehensive resumption of parliament, meet constitutional requirements, and comply with physical distancing rules.

The paper warns the current diminished attendance of MPs could “limit the engagement of backbenchers, minor parties, and the crossbench”.Advertisement

The hybrid approach would have a cohort of MPs attending parliament in Canberra – fulfilling the obligation to sit in the seat of government – and allow others to participate using video conferencing.

The UK’s hybrid model allows questions and statements to be delivered both in-person and via video conferencing platforms.

The House of Commons, which has been fitted with screens, is able to sit 50 members in-person and have 120 members online.

Questions and statements are organised by the speaker and government two days in advance.

The UK is also considering extending the model to government motions, voting on divisions, and the consideration of legislation.

The speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said the model allowed for greater scrutiny of government while complying with the advice to stay home.

“By initiating a hybrid solution, with steps towards an entirely virtual parliament, we are enabling members to stay close to their communities, while continuing their important work scrutinising the government,” Hoyle said.

Whealy said there was no reason Australia could not do the same.

“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 said.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese has argued parliament “should be sitting in the normal pattern” and crossbencher Jacqui Lambie says sittings should resume as normal as soon as it is safe to do so.

The Centre for Public Integrity says the hybrid model adopted overseas would help ensure all parliamentarians were represented, while complying with the constitution and social distancing.

“It’s fundamental to the working of a democracy that we have a parliament, because that’s the system under which all of our laws are passed, or checked, or amended, or rejected,” Whealy said.

“If you don’t have a parliament sitting then the whole method under which the democracy works – namely driven by parliamentary legislation and scrutiny – falls to the ground.”

Whealy said the current debate about the government’s contact tracing app showed the need for sittings.

“There’s a feeling around that our privacy is threatened, that the information being collected will be misused in some way – so there’s an element of ‘can we trust the government on this?’,” Whealy said.

“Now the way in which you do get that trust is by having legislation brought forward by it being scrutinised, checked, amended, and finally, if it’s satisfactory, approved, or if it’s not, rejected.”

The government rolled out the app on Sunday but the legislation preventing the data from being used for other purposes will not be introduced into parliament until the three-day sitting week in May.