Coronavirus and Parliamentary Democracy

Rose Jackson

One of the early Australian causalities in the coronavirus crisis was parliamentary democracy. Before widespread economic lockdowns or public health restrictions were established, our Parliaments were quietly adjourned – cancelled, effectively – for months and months and months. The ease with which this was effected was disquieting, but in comparison with the then looming public health crisis seemed pretty inconsequential.

The global coronavirus pandemic has given us cause to reconsider whether parliamentary democracy is an essential service – whether in times of extreme health and economic stress these institutions help or hinder our collective community response.

In my view the current COVID-19 crisis is proof of the enduring necessity of our democratic traditions and the collectivist values that underpin them. The health, economic and social response to this utter catastrophe must be coordinated. Every person for themselves is death, literally. We cannot manage this on our own. We are relying on each other to observe physical distancing and proper hygiene practises to limit the spread of the virus. We are relying on each other to check in with friends and neighbours, to make sure people have what they need and aren’t falling through the cracks.

This coordinated response must be delivered by government. The state is the only institution capable of such a monumental task, proof of its relevance and centrality in our lives. It is only by working together that can we deal with this crisis – and it is our parliamentary system that provides the framework for that co-operation.

Across Australia, this parliamentary framework experienced massive disruption because of the public health crisis. In the short-term, even the most dedicated Parliamentarians accepted this as entirely necessary. As time passed, we began to see the detrimental impact of this limited community input into the development of public health and economic responses.

Members of Parliament have a much broader role than participation in Parliamentary sittings, but this task is foundational to what we do. You cannot be a Member of Parliament with no Parliament. We don’t sit all the time, but our work representing the community is built around our engagement in the parliamentary process.

One example of the importance of defending our democratic traditions are the Public Health Orders executed from late March. These Orders are without question the largest peacetime restriction on our civil liberties. They imposed significant restrictions on our movement, on our ability to go outside our homes, to gather with our friends and family. Breaches of these restrictions – enforced with a significant degree of police discretion – result in substantial fines, or even a prison sentence.