Search This Blog

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Parliament out till August, scrutiny of response to pandemic in the hands of senate committee

At the truncated sitting of the Senate yesterday, the Senate:
debated  in the course of a ministerial statement about the Coronavirus pandemic, whether Parliament would adjourn normal sittings until August, subject to recall by the presiding officers in the event of urgent necessity. And adjourned on that basis; 

approved a motion moved by ALP Senator Katy Gallagher to establish a Senate committee to oversight the Government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and any related matters, and to report on or before 30 June 2022. The full text is below. An amendment moved by The Greens to establish joint (ie members from both houses) committees to oversight the Pandemic Health Response and the Pandemic Economic Response was opposed by government and ALP senators and failed to pass.

Senator Cormann in his ministerial statement said
"Parliament not sitting for a period does not mean the government is not under scrutiny from the parliament... We will also be supporting the establishment of a dedicated select committee to be chaired by the shadow finance minister, Senator Gallagher, which will be examining and scrutinising the government's response to COVID-19. In fact, our government very much welcomes the establishment of this Senate select committee, which will have as its job to scrutinise and question all of the initiatives and measures taken by our government in responding to the coronavirus crisis.

That committee will be supported from the coalition side by Senator James Paterson, a very experienced committee chair across the broader Prime Minister and Cabinet and Finance portfolios, who will be our nominee for Deputy Chair, and Senator Perin Davey, who will bring an important regional perspective to the work of that committee. All interested senators will be able to participate in that long-term inquiry as they see fit.

It also, of course, remains possible for senators to ask ministers questions on notice, and I know a number of colleagues in this chamber take furious advantage of that opportunity. Furthermore, the parliament may well sit again between now and August, if and as required. The motion the Senate agreed to unanimously when we last met allowed for the President to determine the day and time of the next meeting of the Senate at the request of or with the agreement of the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. That is, in fact, precisely how today's sitting of the Senate came about, and I will be moving a motion to the same effect before the Senate adjourns today. To put it simply: the Senate can sit and will sit to ensure measures are implemented that protect Australians and support the economy, jobs and Australians in need of support, in response to the increasing threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus. But, during this period, we will only sit if that is necessary for us to act consistently, as much as we can, with the public health advice directed by medical experts to all Australians."

Thanks Open Australia for the links.

Motion approved by the Senate

(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
(4) That:
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.

Senator Gallagher said

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment