28 July 2020
In the context of the sadly continuing COVID-19 situation in Victoria, South Australian Senator Rex Patrick has called on the Federal Government to move without delay to determine conditions for Federal Parliament to meet in a COVID safe manner, including consideration of mandatory quarantine for MPs and Senators in the lead-up to sittings and COVID-19 testing throughout.
“The Coalition Government and all MPs and Senators should be prepared to do whatever it takes to safely convene Parliament.” Senator Patrick said. “While it may be convenient for the Government to cancel Parliamentary sittings, and so avoid scrutiny, democracy can’t be put on hold, especially in the context of such a complex health, economic and social crises.”
“It may be necessary for some and perhaps most MPs and Senators to accept two weeks of hotel quarantine in Canberra prior to the Parliament meeting and COVID-19 testing before and throughout.”
“There is already an important precedent for MPs and Senators accepting mandatory quarantine as necessary for the performance of their duties. The Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence have committed to two weeks of quarantine so that they can attend the AUSMIN talks in the United States."
”Other MPs and Senators should be prepared to do what is required for them to safely perform their primary function as legislators.”
“Following the recent cancellation of sittings, the Australia Parliament is next scheduled to meet in four weeks’ time, on 24 August. Every effort should be made to ensure that sitting goes ahead.”
“However, given the latest grim statistics of COVID-19 infections in Victoria and the likelihood the lockdown of Melbourne may be extended, it appears likely that the Coalition Government will again seek to cancel another two weeks of Parliament.”
“This would be a most regrettable situation which should be avoided.”
“The Parliament has successfully held two socially distanced sessions at the height of the first wave of the pandemic.”
“Although many people have raised the idea of ‘virtual’ meetings of Parliament, the technical and legal issues are complex. It is likely that the Parliament will still need to meet for the House of Representatives and the Senate to approve changes in their respective Standing Orders and possibly enact legislation to allow for Parliament to meet and pass laws without MPs and Senators being physically present at Parliament House in Canberra.”
“The Government and Opposition are consulting on these issues with the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate. However, time is short if decisions made in time for implementation in the last week of August.”
“It may be necessary to give serious consideration to sittings with reduced numbers of MPs and Senators who undertake two weeks of hotel quarantine in Canberra prior to the Parliament meeting. This would obviously be the case with MPs and Senators from Victoria, but such a requirement may need to be extended to others depending on circumstances.”
“Given the current state of Parliamentary computer systems, MPs and Senators should have no problem in performing much of their of their work, including constituency consultations, online while in hotel quarantine. As a senator who worked through an extended period of self-isolation, I know this can be done,” Senator Patrick said.
“MPs and Senators attending Parliament would also need to be subject to regular COVID-19 testing throughout the sitting period. They could also be required to practice enhanced social distancing and refrain from visiting Canberra restaurants and night spots while Parliament is sitting.”
“Arrangements for Parliamentary sittings should be subject to analysis and endorsement by the Australian Chief Medical Officer. However, the Government and the Parliament need to do the hard yards to come up with workable and safe solutions, and this needs to be done without delay.”
“Mandatory quarantine may involve some inconvenience for MPs and Senators. But many Australians are making great sacrifices in all sorts of ways to help our nation in this time of crisis. Members of the Australian Parliament should lead by example.”