Monday, 23 March 2020
Days and Hours of Meeting
The Greens can't support the cancellation of sitting weeks in advance when we don't know where we're going to be at that stage, we don't know what's going to be required of us as MPs or of the government and we don't know how the government's stimulus package is going to play out. We've just passed, in a very short period of time, with very little scrutiny and very little notice, legislation to give the government the authority to spend an enormous amount of money and to make an enormous amount of changes, and that has happened in this parliament because there is a recognition from everyone in this place that we are confronting a crisis and we are confronting an emergency and urgent steps need to be taken. But it is because it is so unprecedented, because so many changes have been made, because such a large amount of money is going to be spent and because there is so much at stake—so many lives at stake, so many livelihoods at stake, so many jobs at stake and so many people who don't have work so their livelihoods are at stake as well—that we need the capacity to work out whether more changes need to be made, whether we got it right or whether we got it wrong.
In the short period of time that we've had, we've already been able to identify a number of areas where the government has left people behind. We've already found that carers, for example, are not going to get the coronavirus supplement. The people on disability support pension are not going to get it and the people who are studying are not going to get it. I asked the government earlier what's the rationale for that and they didn't have one; the minister just sat there in silence. They didn't have one and that is probably because there isn't one and probably because this has been rushed. I understand the circumstances for rushing it but, in rushing things, governments can make mistakes. We've already been able to identify people who have been left behind in sectors like hospitality and tourism. There are no specific packages for them. There are big gaps, for example, in the continued requirements around mutual obligation for people receiving social security payments. We just haven't had the time, because we've all agreed to come here in good faith and work on this on an urgent basis, to work out exactly who's been left behind and what more will be needed.
A part of the reason, certainly from our perspective, that we were willing to engage in this in good faith and say to the government, 'Yes, we accept this needs to be done and done quickly,'—even though we would do it differently—was there were further sitting weeks scheduled in the not-too-distant future that could give us a chance, after being with our constituents and seeing how this is playing out, to come back and say, 'Look, some changes are needed. We need to look after students and give them the coronavirus supplement because too many of them have now lost so much money they can't afford their rent; they're in dire straits.' We thought we would have the chance to come back to argue, to plug some of the gaps and, I suspect, to have to massively increase the level of stimulus that will be required.
If it turns out that in a few weeks' time it is not safe for parliament to sit then it must be within our wit to be able to work out alternative ways of making such decisions if we need to. There's been a good deal of goodwill and co-operation here today, people's safety has been a priority as well and we've been able to balance that. If further urgent decisions need to be made then, surely, we should be able to work out how to make them if parliament has to be cancelled. But the starting point in an emergency is to have more democracy, not less. The presumption that simply because there is a crisis we should cancel parliament is a worrying one. Yes, we should definitely impose restrictions if safety requires it. If it is putting people at risk for us all to come here and meet again because that is what the health advice says then, of course, let's listen to the health advice. But that's not the basis on which this is being put forward, so we can't support a change that automatically removes another several months of opportunity to debate and improve the package, scrutinise the government spending and hold the government to account. The fact that the government's already made mistakes and left people behind does not give us that requisite confidence. We thought we'd have the opportunity to come back after talking to our constituents and tidy up gaps. The removal of that opportunity is not one that we can support. And it is, I must say, concerning that one of the first responses of the government in this is to cancel the opportunity for scrutiny. Yes, by all means let's cancel parliament on a week-by-week basis if that turns out to be the medical advice, but the Greens cannot support the cancellation of parliament in advance, especially at a time of emergency.