Monday, 23 March 2020
Days and Hours of Meeting
The opposition will be opposing the changes to the sitting calendar, while we acknowledge that there are some changes that do need to be made.
Clearly, when the government announces that the budget will be held at a different time then that needs to be reflected in a revised calendar, and the government has done that here. What the government has also done, though, is eliminate any sittings during May and June. It may well be that by the time we get to May and June we find that we can't sit. If that's the case then it is entirely the prerogative of the government to give advice to the Speaker that they believe the sitting needs to be cancelled. We have, previously, cancelled a week of sittings based on the fact that the member for New England at the time was before the High Court. There were two by-elections on, it was going to change the numbers on the floor, and a week of sittings was suddenly cancelled. If we can do it in those circumstances when it needs to happen then we can do it with respect to a pandemic, if we get there, and it needs to happen.
The reason the opposition believes that we shouldn't make that decision today is that, as everyone is acknowledging, we don't know where we will be in May or June, and the presumption should be that the parliament will sit. The presumption should be that we will meet if it is possible for us to sit, because, during this period, during a time of crisis, is when the Australian public needs us to sit. I will be more than surprised if we can go from now until August and find that the legislation we put through the parliament today is all the nation needs for Australia to handle this pandemic, all the nation needs to deal with the crisis of unemployment and recession that we'll be facing. That means we will need to sit, so we shouldn't pretend that we won't. It also means during this period the government will be compelled in the interests of the nation to make some decisions of great magnitude. That will happen. We know that will happen; that's part of the story behind the supply bills that have just passed. To have 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.
I won't detain the House longer than that, but I will simply remind us: if we find that in some way, for health reasons, there is a difficulty in the parliament meeting, there are resolutions that we will deal with later today to make sure that we are still able to meet as a parliament. And that's all being done with a full level of cooperation and good common sense between me and the Leader of the House. Of all the decisions that have been made procedurally, this is the only one where we have disagreement. Let's not forget, in terms of legislation, some of what we dealt with in legislation today was only announced and determined by the Australian government yesterday. It is unthinkable that we will make it through to 11 August without the nation needing us to convene. It may well be that in addition to May and June we find we're back here in July. It may be that before we even get to when we are meant to sit in May, in April or even later this month we may find there is an emergency reason that we need to sit. I have to say I have no confidence that the plans that have been made in the government's narrative of keeping people in work are going to keep people in work. The apprentices one, for those numbers, as a direct wage subsidy, may well be able to do it, but, for the others—and I said in an earlier speech—I'm just not confident that that's how it's going to unfold. I'm simply not confident.
I hope, we all hope, that what's been announced today and what's gone through the parliament today is enough, but I would be deeply surprised if it is. Therefore, in us opposing the sitting calendar, we're simply saying to the government: keep the presumptions of the dates that we are here in May and June. If we need to meet earlier than that, we will cooperate with that. If the sittings, when we get to those dates, mean that we find the parliament can't sit, then the usual communication between the government and the Speaker will cause those sittings to be cancelled at the time. But to presume that we don't need to be back here until 11 August defies logic, defies common sense and is something that the Labor Party, the opposition, cannot support.