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New research shows Australia unique in shutting Parliament

ON MONDAY 23 March a reduced House of Representatives sat in Canberra ostensibly to pass a number of measures in the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020. Once this business was concluded, at 18.45, Attorney-General and Leader of the House Christian Porter presented a revised program of sittings for 2020 which effectively suspended federal parliament for almost five months until 11 August, with the federal budget delayed from May to 6 October. (1)

In support of its decision to suspend parliament the government argued that “putting budgets together at this time, with the enormous uncertainty that exists in predicting, anticipating and estimating economic parameters, is not something that any Commonwealth or state government should be doing”, and the risks attached to the operation of parliament “during what is anticipated to be the peak point in the transmission of the coronavirus”. (1)

Labor and the Greens responded in opposition to the government’s proposition, with Manager of Opposition Business Tony Bourke saying “during this period, during a time of crisis, is when the Australian public needs us to sit”. Bourke also noted that the government would need to make decisions of incredible importance in response to COVID-19, and “decisions of that magnitude being made without the parliament convening and without there being a question time and an opportunity for people representing the different corners of Australia to hold the government to account is an unwise course for us to take”. (1)

Australia is not alone among countries with similar types of democratic institutions in suspending parliamentary sittings, however Australia is an outlier for taking the most drastic action. The Australian federal government has reduced the number of sitting days for 2020 by 21, which is almost a 30% reduction in the 72 scheduled sitting days for the House of Representatives originally planned for the year.

Other countries with far many more confirmed cases of COVID-19 are suspending their parliaments for less time, and/or taking provisions to allow for proper and transparent governance to continue.

New Zealand, for example, has established an Epidemic Response Committee “to consider and report to the House on any matter relating to the Government’s management of the COVID-19 epidemic”, chaired by the Leader of the Opposition. In establishing the committee Leader of the House Chris Hipkins said he wanted to “acknowledge that scrutiny during this unprecedented time, when the Government is placed in the position of exercising such extraordinary powers, has never been more important”. (11)

In the United Kingdom, provisions were made so “Scrutiny of the government and its legislation will continue”, with a working group created to investigate ways that members can use remote collaboration and videoconferencing. (8)

The following table compares the responses from different countries to COVID-19 in terms of the period of suspension of their parliaments, the actual number of scheduled sitting days lost, other particular arrangements made that will facilitate continued scrutiny of government decisions, and the severity of the pandemic in each country according to numbers of confirmed cases.

About The Centre for Public Integrity

The Centre for Public Integrity is an independent think tank dedicated to preventing corruption, protecting the integrity of our accountability institutions, and eliminating undue influence of money in politics in Australia. Board members of the Centre are the Hon Tony Fitzgerald AC QC, the Hon David Ipp AO QC, the Hon Stephen Charles AO QC, the Hon Anthony Whealy QC, Professor George Williams AO, Professor Joo Cheong Tham and Geoffrey Watson SC. More information at www.publicintegrity.org.au.

> Read the FULL REPORT HERE.

[INCLUDES footnotes and Table comparing parliamentary sittings across Covid-affected democracies.]

IMAGE BACKGROUND: Alexander Cimbal, Dreamstime

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