Senate debates

Thursday, 14 May 2020


Days and Hours of Meeting

3:35 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

(1) That the days of meeting of the Senate for the remainder of 2020 be as follows:

Winter sittings:

Wednesday, 10 June to Friday, 12 June

Monday, 15 June to Thursday, 18 June

Spring sittings:

Tuesday, 4 August to Thursday, 6 August

Monday, 10 August to Thursday, 13 August

Monday, 24 August to Thursday, 27 August

Monday, 31 August to Thursday, 3 September

Tuesday, 6 October to Thursday, 8 October

Monday, 9 November to Thursday, 12 November

Monday, 30 November to Thursday, 3 December

Monday, 7 December to Thursday, 10 December.

(2) That estimates hearings by legislation committees for the remainder of 2020 be scheduled as follows:

2020-21 Budget estimates:

Monday, 19 October to Thursday, 22 October, and, if required, Friday, 23 October (Group A)

Monday, 26 October to Thursday, 29 October, and, if required, Friday 30 October (Group B)

(3) That cross portfolio estimates hearings on Indigenous matters and on Murray-Darling Basin Plan matters be scheduled for Friday, 23 and 30 October, but not restricted to these days.

(4) That the committees consider the proposed expenditure in accordance with the allocation of departments and agencies to committees agreed to by the Senate.

(5) That committees meet in the following groups:

Group A:

Environment and Communications

Finance and Public Administration

Legal and Constitutional Affairs

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport

Group B:

Community Affairs


Education and Employment

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

(6) That the committees report to the Senate on Tuesday, 17 November 2020 in respect of the 2020-21 Budget estimates.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Waters, are you seeking to speak on that motion?

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, Deputy President. I seek guidance. I would like to make a brief contribution on that, but I'm not sure how long I could be indulged for. I don't intend to take that long.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Waters.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thanks very much. We've just received a revised sitting calendar half an hour or so ago from the government, and, based on the sitting weeks that were in the original pre-COVID calendar, it looks like we'll still be short one estimates week, which is of great concern because we had moved amendments to the COVID Senate select committee to enable it to scrutinise the Prime Minister and other ministers from the other place, and those amendments were not successful. So we are not able to have that scrutiny ability—except through the forum of this chamber or through estimates. So our suggestion and our hope would be that one of those sitting weeks—in our suggestion, one of the June weeks—should in fact become an estimates week so that we can use those scrutiny powers and those accountability mechanisms to best effect, given the limitations of that committee, because sadly nobody backed our amendments to make it stronger.

I might also note that we've had a very good and positive tradition in this place of not scheduling sitting weeks in school holidays. I'm sure there are many folk in this place who have people who stay home and look after their kids for them, but some of us actually do that ourselves, and it's very difficult to manage parliamentary sittings when school holidays are on. So that would be my other note of caution. It's just one of the weeks that has been scheduled and it's only half the country that will be on school holiday, but it's that week of 6 to 8 October. I would seriously ask the government to reflect on rescheduling that sitting week to a different week this year so that people, and young parents in particular, are not discouraged from careers in politics going forward.

I might also add that we are assuming and hoping that the social-distancing requirements will continue to apply. As democracy continues to work, we think it's important that we continue to be guided by the health advice, so we need to have the same rules as the rest of the nation. I think we've been doing well in that regard, and I give credit to the chamber attendants and to the folks in this building who have been assisting us to do that, but it's important that those protocols remain, given that we will now have a sitting calendar that is effectively the same as the sitting load before the pandemic, which we support. We are concerned, though, at the government's rhetoric that the economy needs to get back on track, in a way that may fly in the face of the health evidence. The pressure that's been coming from this government to the states to hurry up and open everything so that people can go out, spend their money again and get this unsustainable economy going needs to be tempered by the health advice. There's been undue pressure, in our view, placed by the Prime Minister just in order to do favours for his big-business mates. Of course we want to see the economy get back on track in a sustainable and equitable way, but this undue pressure is inconsistent with the health advice, and we ask the Prime Minister and folks in this place to take that on board.

Overall, we're pleased to see a lot more sitting weeks scheduled. Democracy has never been more important than at times such as this, when we are facing unprecedented challenges on so many fronts: an inequality crisis, a climate crisis, a jobs crisis, and now a health crisis on top of that. It's appropriate that we get back to work, as long as those social-distancing protocols are observed. I might add that we hope that arrangements for travel are factored in, considering that many states have had flights severely restricted, in no small part due to the government's failure to provide any assistance to a large airline company, and, of course, the Queensland government is now attempting to step in to do that. But that will be another consideration, particularly for those who are coming from over west. Thanks very much.

3:40 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—The issue that Senator Waters raises about school holidays is a fair point. Obviously, this program has gone through the House of Representatives as well, so I propose that we deal with it as put forward today. I'll take that on notice and explore that. We'll have some time to have another look at that particular week, in relation to school holidays.

In relation to travel—and I come from Western Australia; I understand what Senator Waters is talking about in terms of logistical challenges—we do need to ensure that we facilitate members and senators coming to Canberra in a way that is workable, so we will continue to make these arrangements, as we have, for as long as is appropriate. I think all parties and all senators would support the comments in relation to ensuring that the meetings will be conducted in a way that is COVID-safe and that is consistent with relevant health guidance. I certainly agree with that.

In relation to Senate estimates, we haven't had a budget. Normally in May-June, we have two weeks of budget estimates and, at different times of the year, we have additional or supplementary estimates that are always linked to a specific event, whether that's annual reports or the half-yearly budget update or, indeed, the budget. The program that we're proposing has two estimates weeks in October, after the budget has been delivered. We are confident that, in terms of the health context and the COVID environment, it should be safe by then to bring together the number of people involved in the estimates process over that period. We're not proposing to amend the program in the way that Senator Waters has suggested in relation to the June sitting weeks.

3:42 pm

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—Labor will be supporting this motion. We're pleased that the government has listened to representations from Labor and others in this chamber about the importance of locking in sitting weeks and getting back to work as the rest of the country does. People, I would urge you to bring your thermal gear with you for most of August, by the look of it!

In relation to budget estimates, I think there are some challenges around convening estimates in the way that we would normally do for a budget period, in terms of the duration, the number of people in rooms and things like that. We've experienced some of those challenges ourselves with the Select Committee on COVID-19. At this point in time, we are happy with the way the government has put forward the plan to have the full two weeks of estimates following the handing down of the budget. Also, I thank the government and acknowledge its assistance with travel for senators and members coming from other places around Australia. It really does help people get here and return home in the most COVID-safe way possible.

Question agreed to.