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Parliamentary scrutiny is always critical

Over the past couple of months, we have all set aside most of our normal activities and adapted to a new way of life.

No-one has been immune and, while it’s been difficult for everyone and has brought enormous hardship to many, we’ve also seen the best of our society as people and communities have pulled together to support each other to keep everyone safe.

As elected representatives of the Tasmanian people, parliamentarians have also had to adjust to a new way of doing our jobs.

When Labor agreed in March to suspend parliamentary sittings until August, we did so with Tasmania’s best interests at heart. The health, safety and wellbeing of Tasmanians must always come first.

But the suspension of parliament in extraordinary times cannot and must not be seen as a green light for the government to avoid scrutiny of important and complex legislation.

When we agreed to suspend parliament, we didn’t agree to suspend scrutiny.

Having returned in good faith last week to deal with legislation supporting the ongoing effort to respond to the pandemic, what followed raises concerns about how we deal with parliamentary oversight of the response to the pandemic in the weeks and months ahead.

Labor attempted multiple times over the past two weeks to have parliament agree to a more regular sitting pattern. First, we moved a motion to allow an extra sitting day last week to deal with two important pieces of legislation. And this week we moved a motion for parliament to sit every fortnight instead of going into our usual winter recess.

But, unfortunately, in both cases, the government and the Independent Member for Clark Madeleine Ogilvie joined forces to vote down these sensible options.

There is no justification for us not sitting fortnightly throughout this pandemic. We don’t need a winter recess in the middle of State of Emergency.

We know the decisions being made now are urgent and important and we won’t stand in the way of doing what needs to be done in an emergency.

On the contrary, we have stood shoulder to shoulder with this government during the COVID-19 emergency, supporting the hard decisions they have had to make and demonstrating tremendous goodwill so Tasmania can deal effectively with this crisis.

The fact that we are in an emergency does not mean parliament should act simply as a rubber stamp, there to pass government legislation without question or scrutiny.

Yet it seems that’s what the government is expecting. Many of the issues we have raised in parliament since its return, and many of the questions we have asked, have been met with the same response from the government – they argued that we were ‘playing politics’.

That is weak. It is disappointing. And it is wrong.

Scrutiny is not ‘playing politics’. Asking questions is not ‘playing politics’. Debating law is not ‘playing politics’.

For the government to expect the parliament to simply accept, without question, the legislation it brings forward is politics at its worst. And it is not democratic.

The government is making preparations to gradually lift lockdown restrictions, so it is certainly not unreasonable to expect parliament to return to a more regular schedule.

Appropriate measures have been put in place to ensure there is appropriate social distancing to protect parliamentary staff and MPs.

Yet, the next scheduled sitting of the House of Assembly is not until 3 June – nearly four weeks away. As we have seen, much can change very quickly with this virus and in four weeks the situation may look very different.

The Premier himself has said he has no problem with having Question Time two or three times a week, so there is no reason this should not happen and we will continue pressing Peter Gutwein to reconsider the parliamentary sitting schedule.

Labor has written to the Premier asking him to consider scheduling parliament to sit again on 20 May.

Our parliament plays a crucial role in providing the government with the powers and tools it needs to fight coronavirus. It also plays a crucial role in keeping governments accountable.

While the government has our support to do everything it can to protect lives and livelihoods, it must also recognise the legitimate role of parliament and let us do our job.

Yes, we are in a time of crisis. But that is no reason to abandon accountability and scrutiny of government’s actions – this is vital to our democracy.

Ella Haddad is the Shadow Attorney General

article originally published May 8, 2020

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