Parliament meets on Wednesday to vote on the government’s $130 billion wage subsidy but is not due to meet again until August 11, after the government scrapped the usual sittings in May and June.
At least 94 members from the two major parties are staying away from the House of Representatives, which means the lower house would have 57 members if all crossbench MPs attend. The Senate will also be pared back to limit the capacity to spread the COVID-19 virus.
Labor, the Greens and crossbench senators are confident of gaining a majority in the Senate on Wednesday to establish a select committee to review government decisions, using teleconferences rather than large public hearings.
Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick said the crossbench party would support a joint committee or, failing that, a Senate inquiry, to meet the two constitutional functions of the upper house.
“The first function is to review, amend or pass legislation, and the second is to provide oversight of the government,” he said.
“It is always the duty of the Senate to provide oversight and check what the government is doing on behalf of the people.
“You can’t have a situation where there are such significant actions by the government and not have any oversight at all.”
Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie is also backing the select committee proposal, while Labor is hopeful of gaining support from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Eight independent MPs and senators have written to the federal government raising concerns that all discussions about the stimulus packages have taken place between only the Coalition and the opposition.
The letter, signed by Greens leader Adam Bandt, Victorian independent MP Helen Haines, Queensland MP Bob Katter, South Australian Rebekha Sharkie, Tasmanian Andrew Wilkie, NSW MP Zali Steggall, Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff and his colleague Senator Patrick, says the crossbench has been deprived of “an important part of our role as parliamentarians”.
Labor industrial relations spokesman Tony Burke said Parliament should continue sitting during the crisis because government bills would need amendment and to oversee decisions.
“There has never been a time where the meeting of the Parliament has been more important,” he said.
Mr Burke also argued the last sitting, on March 23, had proven the value of Parliament with a question time that did not engage in the usual partisan tactics.
“Let’s face it, we haven’t had a question time like this in years,” Mr Burke said.
“Parliament at the moment is working exactly as it should and that’s why we should meet more often.”
Six former judges, including former High Court justice Mary Gaudron, last week called for Australia to adopt New Zealand’s approach of using an all-party select committee to scrutinise government decisions.
The New Zealand Epidemic Response Committee has the power to compel witnesses and subpoena documents and is chaired by the country’s Opposition Leader, Simon Bridges.
The British Parliament has used its Health and Social Care Committee to ask questions of government medical advisers throughout the crisis.
A Senate select committee would usually have a chair from the non-government parties, most likely Labor.
An alternative approach would be to gain bipartisan agreement on a joint committee agreed by both houses of Parliament, with a chair from the government parties.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra