Tuesday, 12 May 2020
Days and Hours of Meeting
I rise to move a motion to suspend standing orders and advise the House that, pursuant to standing order 47(c)(ii), the Manager of Opposition Business and I have agreed that an absolute majority is not required. I move:
That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the following from occurring:
(1) the House of Representatives to meet on Wednesday, 13 May 2020 and Thursday, 14 May 2020;
(2) the Federation Chamber not to meet today, and to meet on Wednesday, 13 May 2020 and Thursday, 14 May 2020;
(3) immediately following the resolution of this motion the Treasurer to make a ministerial statement, with the Shadow Treasurer to respond; and
(4) any variation to this arrangement to be made only by a motion moved by a Minister with leave granted by the Manager of Opposition Business.
I thank the government for the discussion that's taken place with respect to this motion. We will be voting for the motion. There are some things that we sought in relation to matters on which the government modified its position. We would have liked to have seen the Federation Chamber operating every day. We think there is an understandable grievance from a lot of members of parliament that there are speeches that they want to be able to deliver during this time. If the government were to change its mind on the Federation Chamber, we would be very happy to see that up and running for the benefit of members as soon as possible.
There remains a difference between the Labor Party and the government as to the sitting calendar. Whether our amendment is carried or not, we will be supporting the resolution, but, in relation to that difference, I move the following amendment:
That the following words be added after paragraph (4):
“(5) the first item of business on Wednesday, 13 May 2020, be the presentation of a revised program of sittings for 2020”.
We accept that those dates will be chosen by the government. But, when the government made the decision—
Government members interjecting—
Back to politics as usual pretty quickly over there! The parliament's decision that we would not sit until 11 August was always absurd. It was absurd for two reasons. First, the nation was going through a health crisis which was causing an economic crisis. And we said, at the time the government said that we would not sit until 11 August, that we would need to come back, and we were voted down. Today is now the third time we have come back since the government decided we wouldn't need to sit until 11 August.
The second issue is that not only do we need to come here for the business of government to do our jobs as members of parliament but we also need to come here for the scrutiny of government. Right now, we are going through the largest period of expenditure in the history of the Commonwealth. To be doing that at a time when the parliament is not meeting is absurd. The point's been made before—and the Leader of the Opposition in the other place made the point again only hours ago—that we are able to observe physical and social distancing here. While we're not meant to be meeting until 11 August, rugby league will be starting on 28 May. If you think about rugby league adopting the 1½ metre distant tackle rule, it's not easy for them to do. But they are able to resume playing again, whereas we, spaced at the distance that we are, are apparently not going to be able to meet until 11 August. Scrutiny should not be another casualty of this pandemic. The parliamentary process should not be another casualty of this pandemic. Us turning up here for work should not be another casualty of this pandemic.
I know the Prime Minister has said this week we are here for a trial. They've been trialling parliament since 1901. It works. We've had the trials of parliament. We've had the trials of whether or not we could meet through social distancing. We can. We have shown we are able to make those changes and function. There is no reason—absolutely no reason—for the government to not be bringing down this week a new sitting calendar.
We're not asking in this amendment that the government be told these are the dates on which we must sit. What we are saying is the House should acknowledge the concept that we don't come back until 11 August is ridiculous. The concept that sporting events are now finding ways to have regular weekly meetings and games, that they can do that, but we can't fulfil our essential constitutional role is an argument that is completely flawed. Therefore, this amendment gives the government the full normal authority to say what exactly those dates will be. But the opportunity for claiming that we can't meet any more needs to end and it needs to end now. The parliament should resume a normal sitting calendar, and tomorrow, as the first item of business, the government should be presenting that to the parliament.
The question is the amendment moved by the Manager of Opposition Business be agreed to. Before I put the question, there was a statement I was planning to make a little bit later with respect to divisions, but it might suit if I do that now. Firstly, for members who haven't been here for the last two sittings—I can still hear the member for Ballarat even when she's up there!—the question has been put in the negative to avoid people crossing the chamber. When I put the question it will be, 'That the amendment moved by the Manager of Opposition Business be disagreed to,' as that allows those voting no to be on the left and those voting aye to be on the right. That practice has worked well.
I also have a statement with respect to the recording of divisions. In these unusual times, as members will be aware from our last two sittings, large numbers—very large numbers—of pairs of government and opposition members have been necessary, meaning certain members were not present in the chamber for voting in those divisions. Now, pairing arrangements are unofficial and a Speaker wouldn't usually comment on such matters; however, in the interests of members, I've given this some thought and had some discussions. Pairing allows the voting intentions of absent members to be recorded in this time, and pairing, of course, has enabled the important legislation that the government has put forward to be debated and passed—indeed, without pairing it wouldn't have been possible because in any sitting there's a limit to the number of people in this chamber—so for the foreseeable future that will be the practice.
In the last two sittings the Chief Government Whip and the Opposition Whip read into the Hansard the names of those members of their respective parties who'd been paired as a way of recognising the special arrangements and recognising how they would have voted if they had that opportunity. So as to better support this practice, I asked the whips to consider a change that goes back to a previous practice. I now inform the House that the pairs will be recorded in the House records, the Votes and Proceedings, and in the Hansard. Those who've been here for a while will know that practice existed for a long time, and I can assure members it was in fact a practice that existed at the beginning of the very first parliament. That will mean that those members' voting intentions will be listed in the column of the pairs. To facilitate this, the Chief Government Whip and Chief Opposition Whip will provide a list of the paired members as necessary to the Table Office and Hansard, and when the advice is received the pairs will be recorded in the Live Minutes, the Votes and Proceedings and the Hansard in the way it used to be. I thought I'd just point that out now. I thank everyone.
I will now put the question—yes, Leader of the House.
The government will not be agreeing with the amendment. By way of context to that, we have had weekly meetings with the opposition. We've explained that we fully intend to have additional sitting weeks between now and August. This was clearly put, so any suggestion that there is any intention on the part of the government to leave a void in sitting between this week and what was otherwise to be the next scheduled sitting week, which I think is 11 August, is not correct. We've clearly explained there will be additional sitting weeks.
There will be a revised parliamentary calendar produced shortly. That will set out regularised sitting weeks between now and 11 August, and they will be regular and conducted as normally as possible. We are not going to produce that sitting calendar on the date nominated by the opposition in the amendment. We're arguing here over literally a matter of days.
The question is that the amendment moved by the Manager of Opposition Business be disagreed to. There being more than one voice calling for a division, in accordance with standing order 133 the division is deferred until after the discussion on the Matter of Public Importance.