The federal government has scrapped all planned parliament sitting days between March and August. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS

Health

‘Better things to do’ than parliament

2020-04-07 14:19:30

The Morrison government has declared it has better things to do than sitting in parliament as it deals with the response to the coronavirus.

Parliament has been recalled for a single day on Wednesday to pass legislation giving the legal underpinning to the $130 billion wage subsidy for businesses hit by the virus crisis.

But the government continues to insist its scrapping of all planned sitting days between March and August is the most sensible thing.

Australia is alone among similar democracies in having dumped so much of its parliamentary time.

Leader of the House Christian Porter says parliament is “a very flexible organ of government” and that is how it’s being used.

“But why would we set down a regular sitting schedule over the coming weeks and months, in the most irregular time Australia has ever known? What is the point of that?” he told ABC Radio National on Monday.

“If people want to sit out there during the greatest economic crisis Australia’s experienced and read practice and procedure of the House of Representatives, good luck to them. But we’ve got better things to do.”

His opposition counterpart Tony Burke said Mr Porter was effectively ridiculing his own job as the government’s manager of parliamentary business.

“At the moment you’ve got parliament behaving at its best and the government’s response is they’d rather not have parliament,” he told reporters.

“I know Scott Morrison doesn’t like the parliament much, but at the moment we have a public show of national unity every time it meets.”

Labor wants to have more sitting days scheduled in a few weeks’ time to update legislation as needed, saying it was inevitable with such vast sums of money being spent in such a short time that there would be things not done right.

It is also negotiating with crossbenchers and the government to set up a special Senate committee to oversee the response to the coronavirus crisis, but Mr Burke said that would be no substitute for proper parliamentary oversight.

Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick has proposed the upper house should switch to a default sitting calendar where a decision can be made before each session whether it needs to be abandoned on health grounds.

“That way the default is to sit unless there is a good reason not to,” he told AAP.

He said parliament must continue its vital scrutiny responsibilities, through committees which can meet using video-conferencing.

The government doesn’t hold the majority in the Senate, so if Senator Patrick’s suggestion wins the backing of Labor and the Greens it has a good chance of happening.

Constitutional expert George Williams says the Australian approach is a poor contrast to what is happening elsewhere.

He also points out parliament continued to sit during World War I and II.

“The current crisis demands that we place high levels of trust in our leaders. However, it would be naive and foolish to rely on trust alone,” Prof Williams wrote in The Australian.

“Taking parliament out of the equation is unwise when governments are exercising authoritarian powers. There is a lot that can go wrong.”