Governments need to get ahead of the scrutiny curve


Critics who argue that this mechanism has no constitutional basis might search the text of our various constitutions for references to the cabinet or the Prime Minister, along with many other features of our system of government. They might also recognise that no living leaders have led during a crisis like this.

But for all this, as time does its work, the public’s appetite for more robust debate around key decisions, data and direction, will only grow. You can see it starting to happen now.

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Governments, state and federal, would be well served to anticipate this next phase. If they don’t accommodate what will become a loud chorus demanding, not without justification, regular demonstrations of accountability in the face of the most far-reaching encumbrances on personal liberties we’ve seen in our history, it will make them susceptible to criticisms they’ll struggle to defend.

That the impositions we are bound by are warranted on public health grounds does not extinguish either the legitimacy or the need for opportunities to test and debate the issues they raise.

In the same way that we have found common cause across the political aisle in trying to flatten the curve to reduce transmissions, all governments should be striving to get ahead of the scrutiny curve too.

The obvious and necessary place to deliver on that level of accountability and scrutiny is our parliaments. Whilst I don’t think parliament should sit if it imposes undue burdens on those responsible for managing responses to COVID-19, including parliamentary staff who support members, parliament should sit as often as permitted by pairing and quorum arrangements, technology and expert public health advice.

Take the Victorian Parliament. On March 19, there was a spirited debate in the Legislative Assembly in response to a government motion to adjourn the House to a date to be fixed. Greens Party Member Ellen Sandell said that she and her lower house colleagues had not been consulted, while Shadow Treasurer Louise Staley argued that other parliaments are dealing with this crisis by making sensible adjustments to how many people are in the chamber. The motion passed without a return date.

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Federal Parliament will be sitting this week, albeit briefly, with a likely sitting in August. The argument here is not that governments lack the legislative and constitutional authority to act in the way they are proposing. Rather, like so many other features of our system of government, public trust and confidence – generic and nebulous though these terms can be – are also vital.

A parliamentary program with only those adaptations necessary to conform to expert public health advice, technology and standing orders, will help address the public’s need to see debates about such consequential issues. It will also ensure that the changes the coronavirus will wreak on our way of life can secure the greatest possible support, acknowledging how great those changes will be.

According to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, at the close of the American civil war, Abraham Lincoln famously said to his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, that it was “‘providential that this great rebellion was crushed just as Congress had adjourned,’ since he and the cabinet were more likely to ‘accomplish more without them than with them’ regarding Reconstruction.”

I can certainly sympathise with those who bear the heaviest responsibilities for these matters and believe that they are driven by the best motives and health advice. But demonstrating a genuine interest in providing a forum for different viewpoints will actually enhance the community’s reception of the decisions that state and federal governments will ultimately make.

Such as move can also refute criticisms that impute baser motives to the actions of governments if regular parliamentary forums are not provided where possible. Suggestions this week that abridged sittings of parliament subvert our democracy are over the top and exemplify this risk.

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That’s not because regular sittings are unimportant. It’s because our constitutional framework does not impose such strict conditions, however much public expectations in the modern era might.

So while the Victorian and Commonwealth Constitutions do not mandate regular sittings and only prescribe that parliament meet at least once in every year, the magnitude of restrictions on the way we live makes the holding of parliament far more important than many might appreciate.

The burdens of office are momentous. But underestimating the significance of platforms for debate has its own consequences.

John Pesutto is a Senior Fellow at the School of Government at Melbourne University and a panellist on ABC Melbourne’s The Party Line. He was Victoria’s Shadow Attorney General from 2014 to 2018.

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