Monday, 23 March 2020
Days and Hours of Meeting
(1) the House may meet in a manner and form not otherwise provided in the standing orders with the agreement of the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business, with the manner in which Members may be present (including for the purposes of achieving a quorum) to be determined by the Speaker; and
(2) any consequent changes to the rules and orders necessary to enable such a meeting to commence may be determined by agreement of the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business.
The two motions that we, the government, move, are both being moved with the support of the opposition and are being moved to ensure that the parliament retains the necessary flexibility to respond to any upcoming challenges that it and the nation may face. The first motion that I have just read relates to the proposed change to sessional orders, whilst the second motion will seek to amend standing order 47(c)(ii).
In light of the current circumstances I thought it would be relevant to provide a short explanation of the context and potential purpose of the motions for the benefit of the House. Today's proceedings have been somewhat unconventional but very effective and conducted with great cooperation. I thank the Manager of Opposition Business for his cooperation in the procedural conduct of today and for his and the opposition's cooperation, assistance and suggestions in the drafting of the two changes that I am now addressing.
The unconventional aspects of today were required and necessary because of the extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances that have arisen by way of the health effects and subsequent economic and administrative changes that have arisen in response to the onset of the coronavirus in Australia. Indeed, the form of today's proceedings would not have been anticipated nor considered necessary a matter of only two weeks ago.
The Governor-General has made a human biosecurity emergency declaration under section 475 of the Biosecurity Act 2015. It is possible that a human biosecurity emergency period could be extended beyond its initial three-month term. Although it is not possible to know each and every contingency for which our nation and our nation's parliament will now need to plan, we do know that we need to plan for uncertainty. The only rule of planning that remains certain in the presently uncertain environment is that it remains a consistently sound approach to plan to achieve the best outcome while also planning to mitigate and cope with worst-case scenarios.
The operation of parliament, its endurance and resilience, has in large part been anchored in its flexibility within the known parameters of proper and necessary procedure to cope with and adapt to changed circumstances. Accordingly, these two motions are a measured and sensible approach designed to provide in the most tempered way the requisite degree of flexibility that may reasonably be required. Further, without altering in any way the accepted or statutory requirements of matters such as the number of members constituting quorum or altering any of the clear and accepted requirements regarding a meeting of the parliament, these changes are designed simply to provide a mechanism by which agreement between the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business, with the concurrence of the Speaker, might provide for the sort of flexibility we have observed today, by allowing for the alteration, for a period, of the standing orders, or orders to the extent that may become necessary to allow for the proper functioning of our parliament in what might be greatly changed circumstances, without being able to anticipate every single limiting circumstance that may arise while the period of biosecurity remains in force.
I might just add that, having spoken very briefly with the crossbench about these matters, they are meant to be facilitative. They are anticipating a set of circumstances where we may not have enough members for parliament, rather than intending to exclude any member of parliament, which would of course be unconstitutional. It is impossible, and not in the anticipation nor intent of government or the opposition.
I will only speak to the one that has been moved. I support these for the same reason that I opposed the change to the sitting calendar, in that I have no doubt that, over this winter, we're going to be coming back. We might get lucky and we won't need to, but, with the pace at which everything's moving, I just find it really hard to believe that everything that we've done up until today will be all we need to do all the way through to August. In the last few days we've seen state after state start to lock themselves down. I don't know how much further that will go, but it is not impossible to imagine a scenario where, for the parliament to meet, we have to get here 14 days early, self-isolate, meet, go back home and then self-isolate again for another 14 days. We're not there yet; we certainly haven't had to do that today. But if the nation needs us to meet, and needs us to meet quickly, we need to have a level of flexibility in how that might happen.
A few weeks ago I would've been opposed to what is in front of us right now, and I view it very much as a break-glass option, if it is required. As the resolution puts a particular responsibility on myself and the Leader of the House when dealings with matters of manner and form, I give a guarantee to the crossbench—and, obviously, to my own side—that direct consultation on that would take place before anything was agreed to. The presumption on agreeing to anything would be this: it would be with the intention of making sure that members who were otherwise excluded could participate. The best that we can do is for us to physically meet here, like we have today, and we'll do everything we can to form a quorum with a significant number of people, the way we have done today. If circumstances mean we have to look at a different manner and form, we will deal with that in a very conservative fashion and a very careful fashion but certainly with the intention of making sure that, when the Australian people need the parliament to meet, the parliament can meet.
I thank the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business for their discussions about this motion, before coming to the chamber and in the chamber. The Leader of the House did accurately reflect the concern that we had, which is that, on the face of it, the motion could appear to be restrictive, when it comes to manner and form, as to who is able to attend or the conditions under which they're able to attend and/or the rights that they might have, should they attend. Reading that together with the quorum requirement, we wanted to ensure that we're not in a position where arrangements might be made for a meeting of the parliament with 10 from either side and no members of the crossbench, or something similar.
We of course understand that, as we enter these times, there will be a need to be flexible. If we can move and explore ways of meeting online or via teleconferencing, that is something that we would welcome, because that would ensure that the parliament is able to continue to meet in times and ways that might be unusual. But we take at face value and thank the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business for the commitment that it is not intended to be restrictive and in fact couldn't be restrictive. That certainly does gives us a bit more comfort than we had—speaking for myself, at least—on reading the terms of the motion as they appear on face value.
Question agreed to.