The Right have a history of suspending democracy under the guise of emergency, only to bring about sweeping social and economic changes that stick. While there can be no doubt that coronavirus is a public health crisis that requires us to act urgently to protect life, it must not become an opportunity for governments to evade scrutiny or effect unrelated changes while the public are literally fighting for their lives.
The Australian Parliament sat through two world wars. It sat throughout the Great Depression. But last Monday, after passing the biggest spending package I’ve ever seen in my ten years as an MP, the Coalition suspended Parliament until at least August and provided Finance Minister Mathias Cormann with a $40 billion slush fund to spend without parliamentary oversight.
This suspension isn’t just undemocratic, it also threatens our ability to appropriately respond to the health and economic crises we’re faced with. And while the government is introducing measures to save lives, these measures also have an impact on our personal freedoms. With the state more powerful and active than it has been for decades, we need more democracy, not less.
The Importance of Parliament
Late last Monday, the government passed their massive stimulus package through the Parliament in record time, but not before submitting to Greens Party scrutiny, in particular, over why the government was excluding so many categories from its welcome doubling of Newstart (now JobSeeker) payments. As a result of this debate, the government finally relented and extended its coronavirus supplement payments to TAFE and university students, who had previously been left behind.
This win was only possible because of community pressure, including from the Australian Council of Social Service, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, the Greens, and thousands of people working together to demand that this group not be left behind. But we wouldn’t have been able to secure this win without the instrument of Parliament.
Similarly, in New South Wales and Tasmanian Parliaments last week, the Greens secured amendments to protect renters by banning evictions. This then became a national eviction ban a few days later. Again, this was only possible because Parliament was sitting.
Australia is facing an unprecedented crisis, and the situation is rapidly transforming every day. Each time the government announces a new measure, it leaves whole sections of the population behind. Yet the government wants to hide their response from parliamentary scrutiny.
Even now, they’re still leaving behind those receiving disability support payments and carer allowance and up to a million casual workers, who all stand to go without appropriate additional support. We need to not only campaign in the community but also in Parliament to see this changed.
When it comes to the finance minister’s $40 billion discretionary spending budget, Labor has managed to negotiate for the opposition’s approval to be sought when the spend exceeds $1 billion. It’s perhaps some measure of accountability. But Parliament will still be left without any recourse to hold the executive to account.
Parliament sitting isn’t about slowing down vital life-saving measures. It is about holding to account a government that has spent seven years making life harder for Australia’s most vulnerable while delivering generous corporate payouts.
We Need Democracy to Defend Workers and the Vulnerable
For those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs as the economy collapses, we’ve adapted to working from home: setting up home offices, learning how to make sure you’re on mute in video calls, dealing with curious children and a patchy NBN. Surely our politicians can work out ways to provide the important functions of a parliament without gathering in one place, as many workplaces around the world have.
It’s also worth considering how other jurisdictions are continuing to protect parliamentary oversight in this period of reduced travel. Both New South Wales and New Zealand have created special cross-party committees to provide additional oversight of the response, with the power to interview key decision-makers.
When speaking in the chamber against the suspension of Parliament, I made the point that there were things missing from the government response that we would have to fix. The Greens moved amendments to ensure the billions going to corporations came with wages and jobs guarantees attached, predicting that higher-than-necessary levels of unemployment would occur unless financial support to business came with a requirement to keep people employed and wages subsidized. Following the government’s actions of (welcomingly) doubling the dole but offering no inducement to keep people employed, it took only a day before images of Depression-era dole queues flooded our screens.
Now, barely a week after canceling sittings until August, we are being recalled to Canberra in a few days to pass the government’s latest response: a $1,500 per fortnight wage subsidy, a pared-back version of what we called for a week ago. Once again, the Greens will be campaigning alongside the community to make this package fairer and to make sure no one is left behind. We need Parliament to remain sitting throughout this crisis in order to do that work and to hold the government to account.