Wednesday, 8 April 2020
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, and it relates to oversight. The British parliament is sitting. Both the British government and parliamentary authorities have been clear that they have no plans to shut parliament and would prefer to avoid this course of action. Speaking in the Commons on 16 March, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, stated:
… I think the whole House will be sure, in our collective decision, that although Parliament may have to operate differently, it must remain open.
The US Congress is sitting. The Italian Senate and the Spanish Cortes are sitting. Despite its coronavirus committee, the New Zealand parliament resumes on 28 April with modified processes and procedures. The only parliaments I am aware of that have adjourned in the manner that the government is proposing tonight are those of the legislatures of Mexico, South Africa and San Marino. Why is the government seeking to suspend our parliament?
I have addressed this in my ministerial statement. What I would say—I'm trying to be as diplomatic as I possibly can be here—is we are taking an Australian path to protect and save Australian lives by taking very drastic measures to slow down the spread of this virus. We imposed border restrictions on return travellers from mainland China, and Wuhan, in Hubei province, in particular. A number of European and other countries that the senator has referenced did not take that course of action, and it took much longer in an Australian context for the spread to accelerate somewhat than it did in places like Italy, Spain, Germany, France and the UK.
I believe that the actions that we are taking in Australia are being successful in saving lives by slowing the spread. All Australians are being given very strict instructions imposing restrictions on their travel, and encouragements to stay at home and work from home where it is possible. Yes, we do have a job to do. Where we must and where we need to, we should come together, and we can; there is a mechanism in place to help ensure that that happens. But, to the greatest extent possible, we should also comply with the restrictions imposed on Australians. We are a large continent. The logistics involved in bringing the parliament together are very significant, with lots of people coming from all corners of Australia. In fact, you will find that health and police authorities around Australia actually regard federal politicians as one of the comparatively higher-risk categories when it comes to the spread of the coronavirus.
We have a job to do. State laws can't interfere with the exercise of federal parliamentary privilege, but nevertheless we should, to the greatest extent possible, comply with the public health advice and instructions that are imposed on all other Australians.
Minister, truck, bus and train drivers are doing their job. Journalists are doing their job. Factory workers are doing their job. Despite the risks, teachers, nurses and doctors are doing their job. Chefs, supermarket workers, public servants, police, aged-care workers and ADF personnel are doing their job, some of them on ships. Miners are doing their job. Everyone who can is doing their job. Why is the government proposing that senators don't do their job?
That is not what the government is proposing. I believe that every single senator in this chamber is doing their job. Whether the Senate meets in Canberra and whether we bring every single senator from around the country to Canberra, in the context of state border closures in most states and, indeed, in the Northern Territory, we will of course continue to do our job serving the Australian people. Senators will continue to have the opportunity to hold the government to account not only through our normal mechanisms but also, of course, through the Senate select committee that we are about to establish later this afternoon. So I completely reject the premise of the question, which suggests that somehow members of the federal parliament, and senators in particular, are not going to continue to do their job. The government continues to do its job. All senators will continue to do their job. In fact, I would suggest that many of us are working much harder than we ever have during this period.
A Senate select committee can be obstructed by comity principles that mean that it can't call the Minister for Health, the Attorney-General in his capacity as industrial relations minister or the Treasurer. Will the government commit to requiring these ministers to appear before the select committee should such a request be made?
I think that the senator has just asked me a hypothetical question, because I don't believe that the committee has even been constituted yet. It certainly hasn't made a decision yet on who it may or may not want to appear. What I would say is that my expectation would be that that committee would operate in the usual way, in the way that Senate committees and Senate select committees have operated since Federation. The government will of course support the work of the committee, and all of the agencies, departments and officials that are involved in the government's response will make themselves available in the usual way to support the work of the committee.