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.
These restrictions are necessary, however at present our information on what these restrictions mean and how long we will be subject to them is based almost entirely on tuning in to press conferences of the NSW Premier or Police Commissioner. When asked at a hastily convened NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the NSW Governments’ response to COVID-19 to provide details on what constitutes a reasonable excuse to leave your house under one iteration of the Order, the Police Commissioner took the question on notice. How can the community be assured these restrictions are being administrated clearly and consistently? Who can the community rely on to ensure these unprecedented restrictions are not normalised? The community rightfully expects their elected political representatives to provide these assurances.
Another example of the importance of parliamentary oversight is the nature and scale of the economic response to the serious downturn caused by the pandemic. The public expenditure is unprecedented, changes to laws around tenancy, planning, public infrastructure, small business support have been pushed through truncated Parliamentary sittings with limited debate. In such circumstances, how can the community have confidence that these policies are properly targeted and fairly delivered? The old adage of no taxation without representation comes to mind, it is only reasonable for the community who is funding these initiatives through taxes to be represented in decisions around expenditure through their elected Members of Parliament.
Additionally, there are other decisions – separate from the COVID-19 response – that are being made by our governments every day. In NSW alone, the full privatisation of WestConnex, expansion of mining leases, major economic reform, the response to the bushfire crisis just to name a few. With Parliament adjourned there is no oversight of these decisions and the ordinary capacity of the people’s representatives to have their say on them is eliminated.
We all know that political expression means much more than parliamentary processes. We also have civil society and the courts – amongst others – to make our voices heard. Our capacity to express ourselves politically in these ways has been severely limited as well. Traditional tactics to express civic unrest – street protests, public rallies, organising door to door amongst communities and neighbours – are all illegal. Our courts have been wound back and curtailed, only the most pressing and urgent matters listed for hearings. It’s not as simple as justice delayed is justice denied, but there is no doubt the normal functioning of the judiciary has been massively interrupted.
In these circumstances it is even more important we have confidence that our democratic institutions are doing their job, and one of those jobs is meeting as Parliament. In historic times of massive social and economic unrest, the community in Western democracies has been able to rely on these institutions to endure. The Australian and British Parliaments sat during the World Wars. Westminster sat during the Blitz, as German bombs rained down on London. They sat during the Spanish Flu. The British Parliament continued to sit during the Black Plague in the 1600s, but relocated from Westminster to Oxford.
Our Parliaments are more than capable of making arrangements to endure in this crisis as well. Measures to ensure physical distancing and healthy workplaces are eminently implementable. With a little creativity and some commitment, we can ensure the Parliament can meet with limited risk to Members and their staff. Businesses, schools, families have all had to adapt to the new environment – our Parliaments should be capable of doing the same.
Older MPs or others with underlying health conditions should not be required to attend. Similarly, staff who wish to continue working from home should be supported to do so. Most Members can operate with limited staff to allow those who wish to stay home to do so, those who cannot will need to adapt. It’s not that hard.
Traditions and conventions can be changed to temporarily limit or eliminate the times many Members gather together at once. Numbers in the Chambers can be limited, seating can be spaced apart, functions can be cancelled but the Parliament still sit. In many jurisdictions parliamentary committees are already able to make use of electronic meeting facilities, perhaps the Chambers themselves can move some parts of their function online as well.
Times of massive disruption to established orders can be opportunities to innovate and adapt in ways and at speeds previously thought impossible. The underlying values of our democracies are enduring and must be defended. However, the form and processes of our parliaments are capable of evolution and change to meet modern requirements.
Of course, decisions are made easier and faster if the parliaments don’t function. Democracy has always frustrated the capacity of the executive to rule unfettered – that’s kind of the point. In the immediate public health crisis, doing away with those frustrations was justified. For anything longer than the shortest necessary time, they become very dangerous. Our laws are weaker and of poorer quality without collective input into them and ownership of their ultimate form.
A debate about the future of our democratic institutions isn’t always in fashion or a top priority. We tend to take these things for granted, to be dismissive and even a bit contemptuous about the role of politicians and parliaments. Times like this remind us that it wasn’t that long ago that people like Dr HV Evatt were at the vanguard of defining and defending our democratic freedoms from the most direct of assaults. Times like this remind us that Australians died to defend the democratic freedoms we are so nonchalant about. For the first time in many years, Australians were unable to gather to acknowledge that sacrifice on ANZAC Day. The least we can do to honour this service is ensure the democratic values they fought for are not jettisoned or undermined at a time when we need them most.
Rose Jackson is a member of the Legislative Council in New South Wales and President of the Evatt Foundation.