OPINION

Australia faces two enormous crises. The COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to our lives. And its economic impact is a threat to our livelihoods.

Meanwhile millions of Australians are in isolation in their homes, our freedoms curbed in ways once unimaginable.

In response, the Commonwealth government is taking extraordinary measures. The Parliament has already legislated $66 billion of spending. On Wednesday (April 8), it will authorise at least another $130 billion. Before this is over, more money will be spent.

These measures are appropriate. But they are among the most consequential an Australian government has ever taken. We must ensure that these decisions do not happen in the dark.

It is right that the government has the power to move quickly – this is not a time for politicking or games. All Australians need the government to succeed, and we as crossbenchers are determined to ensure that they do.

However, our collective success depends on the public trusting the measures the government puts in place. If we are to get through the difficult months ahead, Australians must trust in the government that is implementing them.

The Labor Party has proposed that a Senate Select Committee be established to perform the critical role of scrutinising the government’s pandemic response. We acknowledge this announcement, but we believe this proposal is insufficient to the task at hand.

Instead, we propose that two Joint Select Committees of the Parliament be established to scrutinise the government’s response to our twin crises. We have written motions that would establish these committees and have written to the government and opposition inviting them to support them in the Parliament.

We do this in a spirit of constructive co-operation, as a good faith act of national unity. And we do this because we believe it is vital to secure the trust we need to succeed.

It should be the collective ambition of all parliamentarians to work together to ensure our response to COVID-19 is as strong as it can be.

Under our model, one committee will scrutinise the immense economic programs being developed and rolled out. A second will scrutinise the measures being taken to protect our health.

These committees will investigate the effectiveness of the measures being deployed. They will take submissions from the public. They will put to our decision-makers questions that all Australians are asking. They will provide a way for all parliamentarians to assist in enhancing our response.

Starting as soon as possible, they will hold open hearings, provide recommendations to improve the government’s response, and help guide the country to rebuild.

In normal times, we rely on the parliamentary committee system to ensure our laws are considered and robust. In times of crisis and with Parliament suspended until August and possibly longer, this is more important than ever.

We have drafted motions to establish these committees so that they can be quickly passed without delaying any other business in the Parliament, and we wrote to the government and opposition last week outlining this proposal.

Moreover, we believe that the proposal for a Senate Select Committee would be a lesser outcome for Australia for four reasons.

First, only a joint committee is able to compel ministers of both houses. A Senate Committee would be powerless to compel members of the House of Representatives – including the crucial ministers for health, industrial relations, treasury and government services – to appear before it.

Right now, these ministers must be given the space and time to execute their critical functions and make rapid decisions. But in the months ahead, the Parliament must be able to interrogate those decisions. Democracy requires no less.

Second, in this difficult time, we should draw on the expertise of all our parliamentarians. There are 151 members of the House on all sides with deep experience in both health and economic policy. We should put that experience to work on behalf of the nation.

Parliamentary scrutiny has already resulted in the government filling some of the gaps in its package. There are likely to be more.

Third, the Australian people must be properly represented on these oversight committees. This pandemic, and the economic aftershock, will affect different parts of Australia differently.

We must have representatives from electorates across the country – including remote, rural and regional Australia – scrutinising our response, to ensure we are pursuing the interests of all Australians including the 3.5 million Australians who voted for someone other than Labor or the Coalition.

Fourth, and most importantly, creating joint committees of both Houses, supported by the government, opposition and crossbench, would be a powerful act of unity and leadership to build trust in the government’s response.

The important oversight role should not be relegated to one party or one chamber. It should be the collective ambition of all parliamentarians to work together to ensure our response to COVID-19 is as strong as it can be.

This crisis has already disrupted our lives in ways once unimaginable. Yet we are still at the crest of the wave. In the coming months, the government will be forced to make many more life and death decisions on our behalf.

We need them to act fast. And we need them to do it right. These committees are a powerful way to ensure we get it right. We offer them to the Parliament in the spirit of co-operation and for the sake of the country.

Signatories:

  • Dr Helen Haines is the Independent Member for Indi
  • Adam Bandt is the leader of the Greens and the Member for Melbourne
  • Zali Steggall is the Independent Member for Warringah
  • Rebekha Sharkie is the Centre Alliance Member for Mayo
  • Bob Katter is the Katter’s Australia Party Member for Kennedy
  • Andrew Wilkie is the Independent Member for Clark
  • Rex Patrick is a Centre Alliance Senator for South Australia
  • Larissa Waters is a Greens Senator for Queensland
  • Nick McKim is a Greens Senator for Tasmania
  • Dr Mehreen Faruqi is a Greens Senator for NSW
  • Dr Richard Di Natale is a Greens Senator for Victoria
  • Jordon Steele-John is a Greens Senator for Western Australia
  • Janet Rice is a Greens Senator for Victoria
  • Sarah Hanson-Young is a Greens Senator for South Australia
  • Rachel Siewert is a Greens Senator for Western Australia
  • Peter Whish-Wilson is a Greens Senator for Tasmania

First published in The Canberra Times [April 7, 2020]

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