Mark Dreyfus
Mark Dreyfus

No other country has dismissed parliament, so why have we?

Boris Johnson's House of Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg has no time for those who believe the coronavirus pandemic is a reason for sidelining parliament.

"Parliament's role of scrutinising government, authorising spending and making laws must be fulfilled," he said recently.

The only question for Rees-Mogg is how parliament can sit in the current circumstances. To that end, he is now "considering every technological solution available".

Scott Morrison sees the role of the Australian parliament very differently. He's dismissed the need for regular parliamentary sittings during the current coronavirus crisis on the basis that MPs "have got a bigger job to do out there in their communities than they would have [in Canberra]".

His Attorney-General, Christian Porter, has gone further, declaring "we've got better things to do" than "set down a regular sitting schedule".

In early April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed regular parliamentary sittings until the threat of coronavirus has eased. Picture: AAP/Mick Tsikas
In early April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed regular parliamentary sittings until the threat of coronavirus has eased. Picture: AAP/Mick Tsikas

But parliamentarians serve their communities by representing them in parliament; there is no bigger job. It is through the parliament that MPs can ensure that the needs and interests of their communities are being addressed by the Government.

Fundamentally, that is the job we are elected to do.

When the parliament sat on 23 March, Mr Morrison shut it down for five months. He was forced to reconvene parliament again after reversing his position on wage subsidies but if he has his way, we won't sit again until August.

That is not how parliamentary democracies work. Parliament is more than a group of MPs who are brought together whenever the government of the day needs approval for its latest legislation, however worthy that legislation may be.

It is not the Parliament's job to serve the interests of the Australian Government. Its job is to serve the interests of the Australian people. That vital function must not be placed into hibernation during a time of crisis.

Serving our communities through parliament is what we were elected to do. Picture: Kym Smith
Serving our communities through parliament is what we were elected to do. Picture: Kym Smith

Disturbingly, Mr Morrison does not appear to think that his decision to shutdown the parliament is particularly significant.

But it is a momentous and unprecedented decision. Our federal Parliament continued to sit during World War I, the 1919 Spanish flu, and World War II. The mother of our parliament, the British House of Commons, even found ways to sit during the Blitz.

And as research produced by the Parliamentary Library has confirmed, Mr Morrison's decision to shut down our parliament is not a decision that is being replicated in similar democracies such as the UK, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.

Over the next five months, the Morrison Government will make decisions that will have extraordinary repercussions for millions of Australians and for the social and economic fabric of Australia for at least a generation.

The parliament gave the Government its extraordinary powers to respond to the current public health crisis. It is absurd and dangerous to suggest that the parliament now has no role in ensuring that these emergency powers are being exercised in the best interests of their constituents and of our nation.

Where other nations are adjusting how their parliaments operate, Scott Morrison has sent MPs and senators home. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch
Where other nations are adjusting how their parliaments operate, Scott Morrison has sent MPs and senators home. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch

Of course the national parliament may need to alter the way it sits to protect the health of its members and the general public. There are many ways this can be done, such as by having reduced numbers of MPs attending in person and through the use of technology.

The sheer scale the current crisis should also prompt us to consider the adoption of additional accountability mechanisms.

The New Zealand parliament, for example, has tasked a special cross-party parliamentary committee with scrutinising the actions of the Government during the current crisis. The committee is chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, sits remotely and its proceedings are live-streamed to the public.

A number of prominent Australian judges have called for a similar model to be adopted here and this is certainly worthy of debate - in the parliament.

When parliament does reconvene to consider the Government's proposal on wage subsidies, Mr Morrison should not try to shut it down again after he gets what he needs.

Instead, the Prime Minister must allow the parliament to continue to perform its vital democratic functions during the current crisis.

Mark Dreyfus is the Shadow Attorney-General.