Wednesday, 8 April 2020
Select Committee on COVID-19; Appointment
(1) That a select committee, to be known as the Select Committee on COVID-19, be established to inquire into and report on:
a) the Australian Government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and
b) any related matters.
(2) That the committee present its final report on or before 30 June 2022.
(3) That the committee consist of 7 senators, as follows:
a) 3 nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate;
b) 2 nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate;
c) 1 nominated by the Leader of the Australian Greens; and
d) Senator Jacqui Lambie
a) participating members may be appointed to the committee on the nomination of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate or any minority party or independent senator; and
b) participating members may participate in hearings of evidence and deliberations of the committee, and have all the rights of members of the committee, but may not vote on any questions before the committee.
c) a participating member shall be taken to be a member of a committee for the purpose of forming a quorum of the committee if a majority of members of the committee is not present.
(5) That the committee may proceed to the dispatch of business notwithstanding that not all members have been duly nominated and appointed and notwithstanding any vacancy.
(6) That the committee elect as chair one of the members nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and as deputy chair the member nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate.
(7) That the deputy chair shall act as chair when the chair is absent from a meeting of the committee or the position of chair is temporarily vacant.
(8) That, in the event of an equality of voting, the chair, or the deputy chair when acting as chair, have a casting vote.
(9) That the committee have power to appoint subcommittees consisting of 3 or more of its members, and to refer to any such subcommittee any of the matters which the committee is empowered to consider.
(10) That the committee and any subcommittee have power to send for and examine persons and documents, to move from place to place, to sit in public or in private, notwithstanding any prorogation of the Parliament or dissolution of the House of Representatives, and have leave to report from time to time its proceedings and the evidence taken and such interim recommendations as it may deem fit.
(11) That the committee be provided with all necessary staff, facilities and resources and be empowered to appoint persons with specialist knowledge for the purposes of the committee with the approval of the President.
(12) That the committee be empowered to print from day to day such papers and evidence as may be ordered by it, and a daily Hansard be published of such proceedings as take place in public.
In the interests of time, I won't read through all the aspects of the motion. It's been circulated to senators for their consideration. However, I would like to just say a few things. Senators, the establishment of this committee is very important and it will have an important role going forward, as Australia deals with the immediate challenges presented by the COVID-19 outbreak, and, indeed, for what happens after. I would like to thank the government, particularly the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Cormann, Minister Cormann, for working with us to put these arrangements in place.
This committee, in its early stages particularly, will provide the country with the scrutiny that's needed on the government's response, in the absence of the parliament not sitting. Of course, it remains Labor's view that the parliament should be able to sit, but, with the government not willing to agree to that, this select committee will be an important vehicle for examining the government's response and providing the transparency, accountability and scrutiny that the people of Australia deserve. Indeed, this is the role that this Senate importantly plays across the political system.
We have tried to represent a broad make-up of the Senate in the select committee of seven senators, so that the crossbench, the Greens political party, the opposition and the government are represented. It does have a long reporting date, and the terms of reference are very broad, to allow us to inquire into any aspect related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government's response to it. Of course, that covers areas we know already but also, importantly, it gives us scope through this committee to examine and inquire into areas that may not be known to us at this point in time. As we know, we are learning things all the time about this pandemic and how governments are responding to it.
I hope I get the support of the Senate for this motion. I thank the government for working with us. In terms of the approach that Labor senators will bring, you'll see the same approach that you have been seeing in terms of our dealing with the legislation that's come to this place; it will be cooperative, working in the national interest. That is our first point. But if there are gaps, if there are problems, we will be raising those and pursuing them vigorously. I urge the Senate to support this motion, as it's the only option and it's the only vehicle that we will be able to put in place to provide the appropriate scrutiny that's needed not just over the next few months but, indeed, over the next 18 months or so.
I move the amendment as circulated:
Omit all words after "That", substitute:
(1) Joint select committees be established, to be known as:
(a) the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic Health Response; and
(b) the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic Economic Response.
(2) The Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic Health Response inquire into and report on:
(a) the measures taken by the Government to address the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic;
(b) the operation and administration of:
(i) the National Cabinet;
(ii) the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee;
(iii) the Office of the Chief Medical Officer;
(iv) other entities and individuals advising the above;
(c) such other matters in relation to the Government's response to the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as may be referred to it by either House of the Parliament; and
(d) any related matters.
(3) The Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic Economic Response inquire into and report on:
(a) the measures taken by the Government to address the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic;
(b) the operation and administration of:
(i) the National Cabinet;
(ii) the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission;
(iii) other entities and individuals advising the above;
(c) such other matters in relation to the Government's response to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as may be referred to it by either House of the Parliament; and
(d) any related matters.
(4) Each committee present an interim report by 31 May 2021.
(5) Each committee present its final report by the last sitting day in May 2022.
(6) Each committee consist of 11 members as follows:
(a) 2 Members of the House of Representatives to be nominated by the Government Whip or Whips;
(b) 2 Senators to be nominated by the Government Whip or Whips;
(c) 2 Members of the House of Representatives to be nominated by the Opposition Whip or Whips;
(d) 1 Senator to be nominated by the Opposition Whip or Whips;
(f) 2 Members of the House of Representatives to be nominated by any minority group or independent; and
(g) 1 Senator to be nominated by any minority group or independent.
(7) In relation to the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic Health Response, members and senators appointed to the committee must be those with backgrounds in the following fields:
(c) mental health;
(d) health policy;
(e) health administration;
(f) public health;
(g) allied health;
(h) aged care;
(i) disability services; and
(j) science and research.
(8) If the House of the respective member to be appointed is not sitting and that House is not expected to meet for at least one week:
(a) members may be appointed to or discharged from either committee by nomination in writing to the President and the Speaker, with such change in membership to take effect from the time either presiding officer receives the written notification; and
(b) at the next sitting, the President and the Speaker shall report the change to their respective House.
(9) If the House of the respective member to be appointed is sitting, every nomination of a member of either committee be notified in writing to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
(10) The members of each committee hold office as a joint select committee until the House of Representatives is dissolved or expires by effluxion of time.
(11) Each committee elect as chair an Opposition, minority group or independent member of either House.
(12) Each committee elect as deputy chair a Government member of either House.
(13) In relation to each committee, in the event of an equally divided vote, the chair, or the deputy chair when acting as chair, shall have a casting vote.
(14) In relation to each committee, the deputy chair shall act as chair of the committee at any time when the chair is not present at a meeting of the committee, and at any time when the chair and deputy chair are not present at a meeting of the committee the members present shall elect another member to act as chair at that meeting.
(15) In relation to each committee, three members of the committee constitute a quorum of the committee, provided that in a deliberative meeting the quorum shall include one Government member of either House and one non-Government member of either House.
(16) Each committee:
(a) have power to appoint subcommittees consisting of three or more of its members and to refer to any subcommittee any matter which the committee is empowered to examine; and
(b) appoint the chair of each subcommittee who shall have a casting vote only.
(17) A subcommittee of either committee shall have at least one Government member of either House and one non-Government member of either House.
(18) At any time when the chair of a subcommittee of either committee is not present at a meeting of the subcommittee, the members of the subcommittee present shall elect another member of that subcommittee to act as chair at that meeting.
(19) Two members of a subcommittee of either committee constitute a quorum of that subcommittee, provided that in a deliberative meeting the quorum shall comprise one Government member of either House and one non-Government member of either House;
(20) Members of a committee who are not members of a subcommittee may participate in the proceedings of that subcommittee but shall not vote, move any motion or be counted for the purpose of a quorum.
(21) Each committee or any subcommittee of that committee have power to:
(a) call for witnesses to attend and for documents to be produced;
(b) conduct proceedings at any place it sees fit;
(c) sit in public or in private;
(d) report from time to time; and
(e) adjourn from time to time and sit during any adjournment of the House of Representatives and the Senate;
(22) The provisions of this resolution, so far as they are inconsistent with the standing orders, have effect notwithstanding anything contained in the standing orders; and
(23) A message be sent to the House of Representatives seeking its concurrence in this resolution.
Oversight and transparency are crucial. The fact that people are still being left behind by this government's package shows precisely why we need genuine and independent oversight.
The amendment that the Greens have circulated builds on work done by the House crossbench, including Leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt. It's to establish two joint select committees. The reasons we believe we need joint committees rather than Senate committees are numerous. We need to be able to call the Prime Minister and ministers who sit in the House; there is otherwise no forum to properly hold those decision-makers to account. The Senate select committee that we will shortly be voting upon will not have the power to call those ministers or the Prime Minister, significantly hampering that committee's ability to perform an accountability and oversight role.
Likewise, there's a lot of expertise in the other place. They've got 151 members and we should use their expertise in public, health and economic matters—including the expertise of those on the crossbench. Likewise, we need to ensure that local areas are represented where they're hardest hit. A joint committee would show a collective approach to a collective challenge, and it would show that the government and the opposition are serious about accountability.
Under the model that was agreed to by the crossbench in the House and that was put in the public domain a week or so ago, which we've now circulated in this chamber, one committee would scrutinise the economic programs being developed and rolled out and a second would scrutinise the measures being taken to protect the nation's health. In normal times we rely on the parliamentary committee system to ensure that our laws are considered, are robust, are scrutinised and are amended where need be. In times of crisis, and with the parliament potentially suspended until August—unless we're otherwise called back, and we'll speak to that issue later—this is more important than ever. We need to be able to act fast. We need it to be done right. Those committees are a powerful way of ensuring that we can get it right.
It's disappointing that the two large parties have not agreed to the approach of two joint select committees, to separate those economic and health issues. But we don't intend to stand in the way of this motion. We flag that we will be nominating the excellent and exceedingly competent Senator Rachel Siewert, our whip, as our representative on this committee.
I rise to indicate that Centre Alliance will support the amendment moved by the Greens. I hope that helps, in terms of whether or not we need to call a division. We support the joint committees on the basis of the statement made by Senator Waters. I would add that we, of course, as senators, tend to look at things in a different way, from a state perspective, and often more from a strategic perspective, rather than dealing necessarily with individual constituents in the way that members of the House of Representatives deal with constituents in their electorates. So it is important. There is expertise in the House that is different to this place. The reality is that if this amendment is not supported, we will truly have the other place in holiday mode. They will be away for the entire period between now and August. So I indicate that Centre Alliance will be supporting the Greens' amendment.
Labor won't be supporting the amendment, for a couple of reasons. We don't think a joint select committee is the best vehicle. We think the expertise for scrutiny lies in the Senate. When you look at the work that's been done, the information that's been gleaned and the reports that have been written over time, they've been written by Senate committees. So we don't accept that. We also understand how the numbers work. The government has the numbers in the House, and it's not going to support the establishment of a joint select committee. So it wouldn't get up. That's my point: the only vehicle available to senators today to put in place proper, independent scrutiny is this Senate select committee. That is the only option available. A joint select committee will not get up. Aside from that, we don't think it is the best vehicle. We think the expertise is found in this chamber, with the processes available to the Senate.
In terms of the expertise senators bring, I think we bring varied experiences. I deal with constituent matters all the time, and I imagine many of us in this place do. So we don't just come at this from a state point of view. People in the House and other senators who are not on this committee—and any senator can be a participating member—will be working very hard. My experience is that all of us have been extremely busy since this outbreak occurred, because we have been dealing with a very distressed community that is knocking on all of our doors. We have a role to play as civic leaders in providing the community with the support they need, albeit probably in a different way to what we would normally have done in the past. My expectation is that members of parliament are going to be extremely busy. The motion that I have moved is the only way that we will get scrutiny arrangements put in place, and the Senate should support that motion.
I will contribute to this debate on the Greens amendment and indicate that the government will not be supporting the Greens amendment for very much the reasons outlined by Senator Gallagher. We welcome the scrutiny. We do believe there is a need for scrutiny. We understand and appreciate that, in these extraordinary times, the government has been required to make very significant decisions, and, as one of the senators mentioned earlier, there is no manual on how to deal with this crisis in the best possible way. We're making judgements every single day to the best of our ability, but it is appropriate that those judgements that we make are scrutinised and challenged to help us make even better decisions as we go along. So it is very important to have in place a committee of the type that is being proposed by Senator Gallagher to do this job. And let me say that it is entirely appropriate for this to be a Senate select committee. It is the Senate that has the tradition and the expertise in scrutinising the activities of government. It's the Senate that runs the Senate estimates committee process. It is the Senate that has got the committee scrutinising delegated legislation. The House doesn't have an estimates committee process. The House doesn't have a committee process scrutinising delegated legislation. I see this as being very much in the fine tradition of the Senate as it has developed over 120 years since Federation.
It is, of course, appropriately open to all senators to participate. The Labor mover has ensured that every single senator is able to participate as a participating member of this committee. The Senate select committee to be known as the Select Committee on COVID-19, which will inquire into the Australian government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and any related matters, has got an extremely broad-ranging brief. It has got all of the usual powers of Senate committees which are in full display during Senate estimates hearings or, indeed, during Senate committee inquiries more generally. Senator Patrick, our good friend and valued colleague from the great state of South Australia, is concerned about who he may or may not be able to call as witnesses. Let me tell you that you will have access to the full breadth of government, departmental and agency officials in the usual way that happens during the Senate estimates committee hearings, and we will continue to make ourselves available in the appropriate fashion. And, of course, you will continue to be able to ask questions on notice. You talk about responding flexibly to this situation that we find ourselves in. That is what we're doing. You will continue to be able to ask questions of ministers. We do have a longstanding process under our standing orders where you are able to ask questions and we are required, within fixed deadlines, to provide answers to these questions.
I won't hold up the Senate much longer. I had hoped that, during my contribution, the bills in relation to the coronavirus economic response package might have made it to this chamber, but I thought I would just make a succinct contribution to the debate on this amendment for the interest of senators and those listening.
I'm keeping an eagle eye out through the chamber, Senator Cormann. There being no other contributions, I will first put the amendment moved by Senator Waters. The motion is that the amendment moved by Senator Waters to the motion moved by Senator Gallagher be agreed to.
Senator Siewert, would you like to avail yourself of the—