We Need to Make Parliament Work RemotelyNewsletter
It was announced earlier this week that Parliament was cancelled for the 3-13 August sitting fortnight on the advice of the Acting Chief Health Officer. I suspect the next sitting fortnight of 24 August to 3 September will meet the same fate.
I’m torn about this. On the one hand I completely respect the ACT Government not wanting Victorian MPs entering the Territory. And the idea of quarantining for 14 days in Canberra wasn’t that appealing either (unless it had been for all four weeks of Parliament and that would have meant six weeks away from Corangamite by the time quarantine was included).
However, the idea that the Government can be without scrutiny for so long is also unacceptable. Constituents expect us to do our job. We had a Government ‘mini-budget’ this week which made major decisions about the continuation of JobKeeper and JobSeeker and revised criteria for access. No-one has seen the secret report commissioned by the Government into JobKeeper at the time of writing.
No-one has been, or will be, able to ask questions in Parliament about JobTrainer the new $2 billion skills package announced recently and we need to keep hammering the Government about why they won’t support the university sector which will shed over 20,000 jobs this year (including 7,000 in research and development, which is a blow to post-COVID recovery).
The Parliament House IT staff have apparently been working on the technology to run a virtual or remote Parliament. Now, nothing compares to the real thing and being able to eyeball the other side across the Chamber. However, during these unprecedented times we need a mechanism to keep parliament running and to keep Government accountable.
There is also the fact that we expect our frontline workers – health care professionals, nurses, aged care staff, teachers, retail and logistics workers and many more – to front up to work each day whatever the risks. So why shouldn’t your MPs? It is a good question. Not appearing in parliament makes me really uncomfortable.
There are also hybrid models. Some MPs could be physically present and some MPs (say from COVID hotspot regions or states) could ‘attend’ and participate remotely. I understand why we need MPs to be physically present to conduct votes, but we have operated in the last few months on an agreed system where each side scales back its representation in the House and Senate on a proportional basis. Quorum for Parliament is around 30 and we have operated with between 60 and 90 MPs in the Chamber (out of 151) votes in Parliament during the April to June period. Those present could be leaders and front bench from both sides plus other MPs from the less COVID-affected states.
With the aid of technology, Victorian and NSW hot spot MPs should still be able to speak by video in Parliament – just as we have all been able to participate in parliamentary Committee work over the last few months. Clearly the rules would need to change about what constitutes ‘attendance’ or ‘participation’.
As we have seen from the Victorian “second wave” these disruptions are likely to be with us for months, if not years to come and at the very least until we have a vaccine. We need to ensure the Parliament sits regularly whatever the circumstances and that as many MPs as possible can attend and participate – whether physically or remotely.
Where there is a will there is a way. The key objective should be to ensure that democracy functions effectively. I’m not so sure it is right now.
This story was originally published in Libby's July Newsletter. Please click here to subscribe to the email newsletter.Share Tweet