ROSE JACKSON MLC
Is parliamentary democracy an essential service? I’m nervous about the answer likely provided by many citizens in NSW. I am under no illusions about how many community members feel about politicians and our work. I am here to make our case, to argue we are a necessary and core part of the function of the state.
The current COVID-19 crisis is my proof point. The health, economic and social response to this utter catastrophe must be coordinated and delivered by government. It is the ultimate manifestation of the central role of the state in our lives. This is not something we can manage on our own - as we have been repeatedly told, and it’s true. It is only by working together can we deal with this crisis - and it is our parliamentary system that provides the framework for that co-operation.
In NSW, this parliamentary framework has been suspended. So far, 7 weeks of Parliamentary proceedings over the next 5 months have been cancelled because of COVID-19. We are not due to sit properly until mid-September.
Members of Parliament have a much broader role than participation in Parliamentary sittings, but this task is foundational to what we do. You cannot be a Member of Parliament with no Parliament. We don’t sit all the time, but our work representing the community is built around our engagement in the parliamentary process.
Many of the serious emergency legislation and limitations on our civil liberties are administered at the state level. The Public Health Order signed on 30 March 2020 - the Order under which we are now all living - imposed significant restrictions on our movement, on our ability to go outside our homes, to gather with our friends and family. Breaches of these restrictions - enforced with a significant degree of police discretion - result in substantial fines, or even a prison sentence. These restrictions are necessary, but this is without question the largest peacetime restriction on our civil liberties.
At present, our information on what these restrictions mean and how long we will be subject to them is based almost entirely on tuning in to press conferences of the NSW Police Commissioner. Who can the community rely on to ensure these unprecedented restrictions are not normalised? To ensure the substantial expenditure on economic survival is properly targeted and fairly delivered? The community rightfully expects their elected political representatives to provide these assurances.
Our capacity to express ourselves politically has been severely limited by these restrictions. We cannot protest. We cannot gather in the streets. We cannot organise and agitate in many of the ways we would normally turn to. We must have confidence that our democratic institutions are doing their job, and one of those jobs is meeting as Parliament.
The Australian and British Parliaments sat during the World Wars. Westminster sat during the Blitz, as German bombs rained down on London. They sat during the Spanish Flu. The British Parliament continued to sit during the Black Plague in the 1600s, but relocated from Westminster to Oxford. We must step up for our community as our forebears in Parliaments of years past have done.
For those government members consumed with the daily battle against coronavirus, the Premier, the Treasurer, the Health Minister, the idea of Parliament sitting must seem like a major distraction. They probably think they need it like a hole in the head. I’m sympathetic, but in some ways the operation of Parliamentary oversight is always a check on government action and decision-making. That’s kind of the point. Our task, particularly as Opposition MPs, is to ensure we’re not frustrating necessary action for the sake of it, but to commit to contributing to a Parliament which makes a constructive contribution to our collective response. I think we are up to the task.
Our Parliaments are more than capable of making arrangements to ensure social distancing and healthy workplaces. With a little creativity and some commitment, we can ensure the Parliament can meet with limited risk to Members of Parliament and their staff. Businesses, schools, families have all had to adapt to the new environment, our Parliaments should be capable of doing the same.
Older MPs or others with underlying health conditions should not be required to attend. Similarly, staff who wish to continue working from home should be supported to do so. Most Members can operate with limited staff to allow those who wish to stay home to do so, those who cannot will need to adapt. It’s not that hard.
Traditions and conventions can be changed to temporarily limit or eliminate the times many Members gather together at once. Numbers in the Chambers can be limited, seating can be spaced apart, functions can be cancelled but the Parliament still sit. Our Parliamentary Committees are already able to make use of electronic meeting facilities, perhaps the Chambers themselves can move some parts of their function online as well.
I appreciate there are particular challenges for regional MPs - both in terms of access to Sydney, and then return options to limit potential spread of the virus. Perhaps these MPs could be supported to electronically access Parliament or have access to testing before returning to their regional locations.
Some of these might work, or need more work. Others will no doubt have things to contribute, but we’re not even trying. There isn’t even a real conversation about how we might keep our Parliament operating.
The Legislative Council Public Accountability Committee has established an inquiry into the NSW Government’s management of the COVID-19 crisis. This is a welcome step, but upper house inquiries are not an adequate replacement for proper parliamentary democracy. They exist to augment and inform it.
Additionally, there are already other decisions - separate from the COVID-19 response - that are being made by the NSW Government. The full privatisation of Westconnex, expansion of mining leases, major economic reform, just to name a few. These things are not included in any parliamentary inquiry, with Parliament adjourned there is no oversight of these decisions to the determinant of our community.
There has been lots of commentary - a lot of it pretty valid - about how unprecedented this crisis is. It is also not even an exaggeration to note Australians died to defend the democratic freedoms we are talking about. We won’t be able to gather to acknowledge that sacrifice on ANZAC Day. The least we can do is ensure the parliamentary democracy they fought for isn’t jettisoned or undermined at a time when we need it most.