The decision last Saturday by the Prime Minister to cancel the next two weeks of parliamentary sittings with no guarantee, given the circumstances, about the fate of future sittings is regrettable. The Parliament has been deemed surplus to requirements. Once again it is treated as far down the hierarchy of essential services. The opposition has agreed to Scott Morrison's decision, though with some grumbles and caveats. That looks like the end of the matter.
The operations of Parliament are not seen as important by the general public unfortunately, so this decision won't cause the government much trouble. But that doesn't mean it is insignificant. The people of Canberra may even welcome it as their wellbeing has been used as one of the reasons why the sittings should not go ahead. But I doubt that they have been properly consulted. The argument about protecting Canberra is based anyway on parliament going ahead in its current form. It has nothing to do with the operation of a truncated form of Parliament or a virtual Parliament.
The case for Parliament sitting, a central plank in Australian democracy, is so strong that it should only be discontinued in the most extreme circumstances or if alternatives are unavailable. Such circumstances have not been demonstrated to exist and there are alternatives.
The government and the Parliament have not tried hard enough to think this matter through. They certainly haven't been creative enough in considering the use of technology. It smacks of inattention. As others have noted, while urging creativity and agility on the rest of the community they themselves emerge as a poor role model for others. This is surprising given the adjustments which have led to the successful operations of the National Cabinet. Once again government has trumped Parliament.
The government effectively runs the Parliament, despite the formalities which involve the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Almost certainly it thought the worst of the health crisis was over and that parliament would slip easily back into business as usual. The second wave in Victoria and pockets of New South Wales caught them unawares. They urged the community not to be complacent, but complacency infected their own planning.
Many arguments supporting the decision have been advanced by the Prime Minister, the government, and various other commentators. They boil down to three types.
The first is that the operation of Parliament face to face in Canberra poses a dangerous health risk because too many people, MPs and staffers, will travel in and out of the ACT and then mingle in close quarters in Parliament House. This argument depends on an inflexible view of what a sitting of parliament means. There is no reason why staff should not remain in their home states if necessary. There is also no reason why all MPs need to travel to Canberra. Already previous sittings have proceeded with reduced numbers.
Morrison has rejected any sitting of Parliament without Victorians present, but there is no reason why the bulk of the Victorian MPs should not attend online. Already some Victorian ministers, including the Treasurer are coming to Canberra on government business, and some other rural and regional Victorian MPs outside of the Melbourne bubble could attend safely. All that is needed is some flexibility.
The second set of reasons relate to impracticality. One relates to security concerns, but general parliamentary business is already widely communicated anyway and contains nothing secret. On the contrary it should be transparent.
Another relates to the difficulty of conducting complex parliamentary business online. Big meetings online need skilled leadership and the job of the Speaker and the clerks will be made more difficult. If some parliamentary business, such as complicated amendments of difficult legislation, proves to be too unwieldy then it can be put aside, but 95 per cent of parliamentary chamber business can go ahead. Some aspects of parliament, such as the debased tone of Question Time interaction, may actually improve under these conditions.
The third set of reasons, often underlying the first two, relate to the importance of Parliament. If it is relatively unimportant then the first two types of reasons, danger and/or impracticality, carry more weight. Yet Parliament shouldn't be taken lightly.
Parliament is a crucial democratically-elected assembly and a representative body of citizens. It airs issues, raises concerns and debates matters needing public decision and/or government action affecting us all. In our present twin economic and health crises we need this essential contribution to our democratic well-being.
Above all Parliament is meant to hold the government to account. It is a forum for the government to explain itself and for the opposition and other MPs to respond. Ultimately, admittedly in theory and rarely in practice because the government has the numbers, it is the forum in which the authority and even very existence of the government can be put to the test.
The current pandemic situation, especially but not only in Victoria, is unlikely to resolve itself in the short to medium term so there must now be serious consideration given to how future parliamentary sittings will be handled. This should include bipartisanship and real consultation between the government and the opposition. Labor's proposal in this regard for a working group to discuss how best the August 24 sitting of parliament should go ahead is a step forward, although it notably is restricted to Coalition and Labor figures plus the Commonwealth and ACT chief medical officers. Other parties and Independents should be included.
Whether the future lies in an adjusted or a virtual mode the outcome should reflect serious government recognition of the importance of parliament.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University