Australia's parliaments, including the Commonwealth, ACT and NSW parliaments, have decided that they are not an essential service. Governments, oppositions and crossbenchers have agreed to this by paring back sittings to an absolute minimum for the duration of the pandemic. After reacting immediately by cutting back the numbers of members attending, about half in the case of the House of Representatives, they have virtually shut up shop. They are effectively taking what Jonathan O'Dea, the Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly, scathingly described as a "democratic break".
The ACT Legislative Assembly has agreed to meet for only five days, (once in April, May and June, and twice during August) before the October 17 election. The NSW Parliament, emergencies excepted, will not sit again until September 15. Likewise the Commonwealth Parliament, emergencies excepted, will not meet for 20 weeks.
The ACT Speaker, Joy Burch, has explained that the new arrangements are designed to protect the health of parliamentary workers, politicians and staffers. Other reasons, especially for the Commonwealth where politicians and others travel by air to attend, might include preventing the transmission of the virus to other people. In the case of ministers, reasons for cancellation might include sparing them from the extra parliamentary workload as they are overloaded by ministerial duties. Backbench MPs might well argue that they are needed more in their electorates to help serve their constituents.
Like making the case for other essential services to continue operating, it is a matter of balance. But we should not take the sitting of parliament lightly. It is also a time for creativity in deciding how parliaments may continue to sit.
Is this democratic break necessary and, most importantly, is it reasonable? If not, is there an alternative?
Parliaments, in effect majority governments, control their own sitting schedule. The number of sitting days is sometimes controversial. Governments in precarious parliamentary positions can adjourn parliament to avoid the danger of losing votes on the floor of the house. Both the Turnbull and Morrison governments recently did this without losing too much skin - suggesting the Australian public is not particularly concerned about such matters. Even so, sitting in parliament is regarded as an important part of a politician's job, and politicians not attending parliament may well be regarded as not doing their job fully, even though they do many other things.
I am not alone in believing that our parliaments have sold themselves short in cutting their sittings to the bone. It is an overreaction which undervalues the centrality of robust parliamentary democracy to Australian society. Whether or not the general population care about what parliaments do, it sends the wrong message.
Dr Stephen Mills of the University of Sydney goes so far as to describe these decisions as shocking, because of the important democratic values underpinning the institution of parliament. These are the representation of voters, authorization of government actions, deliberation or discussion in a community assembly, giving legitimacy to the decisions of executive government, and ensuring that the government is held accountable.
In short, parliament is central to the democratic fabric of our society and we should not treat it at all lightly. Now a parliament can perform some of these tasks without actually meeting, or while sitting infrequently. Just the very existence of a parliament symbolizes what it stands for. Individual parliamentarians can represent their constituents in public debate, and opposition leadership, although its opportunities are severely reduced, can still call the government to account on behalf of the people.
Parliamentary committees may continue to undertake their undervalued work because a parliament has been adjourned and not prorogued. The media and the general public can also both continue public discussion of issues and try to hold government accountable. They sometimes do this better than parliaments themselves. The combination of majority governments and strict party discipline can make a mockery of the institution of parliament, anyway. Legislation can be rushed through like the proverbial sausage factory.
Our parliaments reacted too quickly, and should have considered alternatives, such as virtual parliaments. Professor Anne Twomey, a leading constitutional lawyer also of the University of Sydney, has concluded there is nothing in our 1901 Commonwealth constitution to prevent creative electronic alternatives to physically sitting together in a building. Words like "sitting" should be interpreted creatively.
It is strange that parliaments and governments, while energetically urging the community to work at home instead of travelling to work, have based the dramatic pruning of parliamentary sittings on old-fashioned thinking. Paring back the physical attendance of politicians at Parliament House through the issuing of "pairs" was a good small step to take in the short term. But a bigger, more creative step would be to keep every politician involved by going virtual.
Many private sector businesses and NGOs are already taking to interactive virtual meetings with alacrity, and many of those meetings, conducted using Zoom and other technologies, are on a very large scale - certainly large enough to be transferable to a parliamentary setting. Politicians would not need to work from home as, apart from the ACT, they all have their own electorate offices well set up with the latest in information technology.
Parliament is such an important institution that all steps should be taken to keeping it operating as close to normal as possible. Our democracy will be lesser because of plans to severely cut back parliamentary sittings. Already some decisions have been reversed in the rush to react to the pandemic. It is not too late to restore parliamentary sittings.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.