Monday, 7 December 2020
Procedure Committee; Report
On behalf of the Standing Committee on Procedure, I present the committee's report entitled The House must go on: report of the inquiry into the practices and procedures put in place by the House in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, together with the minutes of proceedings.
Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).
I thank all committee members for their work on the inquiry. I particularly thank the deputy chair, the member for Oxley, for his contribution and his cooperation on this committee. I'd like to thank all the committee members for their great work and for how they have conducted themselves during the inquiry.
The committee decided in May that it would be useful to produce a record of the extraordinary procedures and practices put in place by the House during the pandemic, with particular regard to matters to be considered should a similar event occur in the future. Although the pandemic continues, the committee wished to hold the inquiry while detailed information was available and impressions were fresh. Our report covers the period from 18 March to 3 September.
This was a brief inquiry. The committee invited submissions from key office holders of the House as well as the Clerk and the members of the crossbench. On 16 June the committee held a round table for members and on 27 August held a private briefing with the Speaker, the Clerk and the Serjeant-at-Arms. The committee thanks all those who made contributions.
In response to the challenges posed by the pandemic, including the need to maintain physical distancing and restrictions on interstate travel during the period covered in the report, the House adopted changes to the standing orders and resolutions to vary how the House may meet. Practical arrangements included increasing the use of pairs to reduce the need for some members to be present and making changes to the seating plan and division procedures. On 24 August, following increased community transmission of COVID-19 in Victoria, for the first time in its history the House agreed to allow remote contributions via videolink in specific circumstances. This has allowed members to represent their electorates even when they could not attend in person.
The committee did not make recommendations in the report but identified principles central to a successful response to a critical situation. In our view, the following elements are key:
Future critical situations will, of course, have their own circumstances, and the make-up of the House and technological norms may be different. But it can be expected that future members and staff will ask how the House met the challenges of 2020, and we hope our report is a useful reference for them. They will be able to see how urgent yet cautious decision-making has enabled time-limited responses to be put in place and modified as the pandemic has evolved. The House has been able to continue to debate issues important to the Australian people, scrutinise government activity and play its role in making laws. The committee commends all involved in developing and adapting to the different arrangements. As the committee reflected in the title of the report, no matter what else happens, the House must go on. I must also thank Natalie, Kate and the other members of the secretariat of the committee for their outstanding work. Thank you, team. I commend this report to the House.
I rise to speak briefly on the report of the Procedure Committee titled The House must go on and to bring to the attention of the parliament the findings and outcomes of this committee. I think it would be safe to say that whilst the rest of Australia was dealing with the pandemic the House of Representatives was dealing with the pandemic in its own way, ensuring that the democracy, the openness and the transparency that this parliament has been known for continued.
I want to start by acknowledging the member for Bonner—someone I've known for over 20 years and a very respected member of this place—for his role as chair and the collaborative and inclusive style of his leadership. He is someone who is always open to new ideas and suggestions, and I thank him for his constructive leadership of this committee. I want to give a special thanks to the House of Representatives staff for all their hard work. I want to acknowledge the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business, who have worked so hard in ensuring that democracy continues. To you, Mr Speaker, thank you for going beyond the call of duty. As I often say, you're the best Speaker I've served under since 2016! I think the collaborative approach this House has shown has demonstrated to the rest of Australia that during a pandemic, no matter what is thrown at us, the voice of Australia will be heard. The advice that we received from people involved with putting together some of the procedural changes has demonstrated, I think, good outcomes and has ensured that the work of the House of Representatives will continue no matter what is thrown at us. May the House continue to go on for many generations to come.