Parliamentary break leaves hole in our democracy

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Our political leaders have remarkable powers at their disposal. Now that a human biosecurity emergency has been declared, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt can determine ‘any requirement’ and make ‘any direction’ to control the spread of COVID-19. His decisions cannot be disallowed by Parliament, and he can override the law. The States have placed entire populations in home detention, subject only to government-determined exceptions. Resistance to government directives can be met with fines or even imprisonment.

The current crisis demands that we place high levels of trust in our leaders. However, it would be naïve and foolish to rely on trust alone. Extraordinary powers must be balanced by vigilance and accountability. They require constant and visible scrutiny by parliament. Unfortunately, at the time they are most needed, federal and state parliaments have been shut down. This stands in poor contrast to other nations that have kept their legislatures open, including Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Taking parliament out of the equation is unwise when governments are exercising authoritarian powers. There is a lot that can go wrong. Officials can use inside knowledge to profiteer from the crisis, or an unscrupulous official can use their power to settle a personal score. Politicians and bureaucracies will also cover up their mistakes, and history shows governments across the world extending emergency powers long past their use-by-date.

Public accountability is also vital to ensuring that our leaders make better decisions. We have yet to learn the full story from the Ruby Princess debacle, in which 2,700 people disembarked in Sydney despite passengers reporting ‘flu-like’ symptoms. This failure in border control has produced sniping between state and federal leaders, with no clarity about who was responsible and how future mishaps can be avoided. Other mistakes are also apparent, including failures by Centrelink to anticipate and respond to the overwhelming demand for social services.

Parliament is also important because it can focus attention not just on the immediate crisis, but on the longer term. Momentous economic decisions are being made to safeguard the community and the economy that will resonate for years to come. Every dollar used to protect Australians at this vulnerable time will be a debt to be repaid by taxpayers. People are no doubt relieved to see measures such as job subsidies and free childcare, but these were necessarily rushed and subject to less debate than even minor economic decisions in normal times.

The lack of real discussion about the expenditure of billions of dollars of public money is a function of the crisis and the lack of a parliamentary forum for debate. It reflects the fact that the normal processes of government have been displaced, as shown by the creation of a National Cabinet comprising federal, state and territory leaders. It also results from power and authority being concentrated in only a few people and unaccountable bodies, including the National Covid-19 Co-ordination Commission.

We can be thankful that we have a free press and public officials such as auditors-general and ombudsmen. The courts also ensure that governments stay within the bounds of the law, though it must be said that such boundaries have been expanding rapidly of late. These though are inadequate for the task at hand.

What is missing is robust and public political accountability. The suspension of federal parliament until August, and some state parliaments even longer, has left a gaping hole at the centre of our democracy. By contrast, our national parliament was active during World Wars I and II in holding the government to account and having a say on policies and laws. It was thought then, as it should be now, that leaders exercising extraordinary powers and making life-and-death decisions should be held to account by the peoples’ elected representatives. The occasional short emergency sitting of parliament to pass legislation does not fill this gap.

Even if it is thought too dangerous to recall Parliament, more must be done to enable its core functions to continue. Businesses and committee organisations have been forced to adapt, and so should our legislatures. They should seize the opportunity to use technology to enable political debate and the questioning of ministers. This would look nothing like current parliamentary procedures, or question time, but would be a way of giving Australians confidence that democratic processes have not been completely abandoned.

The federal parliament should also establish a special pandemic response committee to provide oversight and ongoing reports of how Australia is meeting the challenge of COVID-19. New Zealand has done this with the creation of an Epidemic Response Committee, while oversight in NSW is provided by its Public Accountability Committee.

The federal parliamentary committee should hold televised hearings to listen to the community and experts on subjects such as government modelling and the quality of public health advice. It should also call on people and peak organisations to identify where problems and people are falling between the cracks. The result would be a more informed public and better decision-making by government. It could also head-off long term damage to our democracy brought about by the suspension of parliament at this critical moment in our history.

George Williams is Dean of Law at the University of New South Wales
This article was originally pubished in The Australian.