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The Victorian government has awarded more than $1 billion in contracts and spent billions more on its COVID-19 response during a time when parliamentary scrutiny has been sporadic, as Premier Daniel Andrews declares he is prioritising delivering vaccines rather than speeches.
But with sittings now indefinitely suspended, governance expert Han Aulby from the Centre for Public Integrity, urged the Victorian Parliament to find ways to sit safely, saying parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of government decision-making was crucial during a crisis.
The Victorian Parliament, like most jurisdictions around the world, has been severely disrupted due to COVID-19 restrictions. Credit:
“Jurisdictions around the world have continued parliamentary sittings online to provide scrutiny of the COVID response. Parliament needs to sign off on major government spending – too often in crises, this is delegated to ministers’ offices with little accountability.”
Mr Andrews said on Sunday “it’s not at the top of my list rushing to take effort away from vaccinating people so we can have a Zoom Parliament,” adding that the state opposition was irrelevant to his plans.
The Victorian Parliament’s sitting calendar has been severely disrupted over the past 18 months because of strict COVID-19 restrictions and sitting days have either been suspended or pared back to allow for only the absolute minimum number of people to gather in the chamber.
The Legislative Assembly and Council, which were scheduled to meet 46 times last year, sat 34 times instead because of rolling restrictions and a prolonged four-month lockdown during Victoria’s second wave.
The lower house separately sat four times, while the upper house, where Labor does not command a majority and relies on crossbench support, had an additional eight sittings.
Parliament has been suspended since August 17. This week’s sittings have been cancelled and there are no dates for when Parliament will be allowed to resume.
The opposition and crossbench have accused the Andrews government of “dodging scrutiny” and politicising health advice to avoid parliamentary sittings.
During the 18 months of the pandemic, the state has awarded 235 contracts worth more than $1 billion in its response to COVID-19. These contracts were in addition to the $12 billion the state government has spent on managing the pandemic, including $2.2 billion on health measures and $4 billion on economic support for struggling Victorian residents and businesses.
A 14-month contract for COVID-19 testing site services has cost almost $400 million, while contracts for the coronavirus call centre and contact tracing are worth $122 million.
Big accounting firms such as KPMG and Ernst and Young received millions of dollars in contracts to transfer staff to help with the pandemic response, while the government separately splashed $3.5 million on body scanners for prisons “as part of the COVID-19 emergency”.
Earlier this month, a senior director in the COVID-19 strategy and policy team wrote to Parliament’s presiding officers, Labor MPs Colin Brooks and Nazih Elasmar, advising Parliament should not sit because of the growing coronavirus outbreak.
Several MPs have written to the presiding officers urging for Parliament to be allowed to resume sittings in a COVID-safe manner, and questioning why the house was allowed to sit last year at the height of the second wave to pass state of emergency legislation if parliamentary sittings had been deemed unsafe.
The Victorian government was able to suspend sitting in the lower house because it commands an absolute majority. Following a fiery debate in the upper house, where MPs sat in defiance of the health advice, an attempt for a “COVID-safe” sitting of Parliament failed 22 votes to 12 when crossbenchers Samantha Ratnam, Andy Meddick, Fiona Patten, Rod Barton, Jeff Bourman, Catherine Cumming and Clifford Hayes voted with the government.
But a Victorian government spokesman insisted Labor had been transparent and accountable throughout the health crisis, noting the public accounts and estimates committee had held hearings into the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said the decision-making process behind the more than 230 contracts totalling $1 billion had been detailed within the administrative guidelines on engaging professional services in the Victorian public service.
“Our priority is fighting the virus – having the best people in the job to do the critical work required to see us to the other side,” the spokesman said.
The upper house met in defiance of the health advice earlier this week to vote on whether Parliament should sit in a “COVID-safe” manner. The moves were defeated 22 votes to 12. Credit:Justin McManus
“We have provided almost $15 billion since the onset of the pandemic, with unprecedented support to Victorian households and businesses.”
During the Spanish flu pandemic, the House of Representatives sat 39 times in 1919 and 76 times in 1920, while the Senate sat 51 and 114 times respectively. Victoria’s Legislative Council sat for 32 days in 1919 and 24 in 1920, while the Legislative Assembly sat 73 times in 1919 and 52 in 1920.
The NSW Parliament has suspended lower house sitting for the months of August and September to deal with its growing coronavirus outbreak while the state’s upper house will decide its sitting calendar later this week.
“Parliamentary scrutiny is crucial in times of crisis and we can’t be suspending Parliament,” Mx Aulby said.
Ms Ratnam said there was no justifiable reason the government should not allow contributions via video link and introduce a “pairing system” for voting to ensure the number of people in the chamber was pared back as much as possible.
“The current restrictions aimed at bringing COVID numbers down, while necessary, have put many renters in a precarious position, and until Parliament continues we are unable to reinstate renter protections,” the Greens leader said.
“Without the check and balance on power that Parliament provides, the government is dodging scrutiny at a time when it matters most.
“Every other workplace has found a way to work safely during this pandemic. There’s no justifiable reason for the government to still have no plan.”
The opposition’s spokesman for Wastewatch, James Newbury, said Victorians could no longer have faith that health restrictions were made impartially by government.
“The cancellation of Parliament proves that the Labor government will use health advice as a political weapon,” Mr Newbury said.
“Labor is spending billions of taxpayers dollars – there must be oversight. But it’s not just about money. Daniel Andrews is controlling every aspect of our lives and his decisions must never go unchecked or unchallenged,” he said.
Under the Victorian constitution, the Legislative Council is unable to sit unless at least a third of the members are “present”, while in the Legislative Assembly, there needs to be at least 20 MPs and the Speaker of the house “present”.
Meanwhile, at the end of every sitting week on a Thursday, lower house MPs pass a motion to suspend Parliament until a specified date on the ordinary sitting calendar. However, due to the public health crisis, the motion, which is also voted on by the opposition, states Parliament will be suspended until the next sitting date unless the presiding officers receive health advice to the contrary.
Professor Anne Twomey said while she believed Parliament could hold virtual sittings, she sympathised with the government about why they may not want to.Credit:Louise Kennerley
During pared-back sittings last year, the Parliament adopted a “hybrid model”, similar to the Commonwealth, and only allowed the minimum number of MPs to reach quorum to sit in the chamber, while others joined in remotely via video link technology.
Constitutional expert Anne Twomey said while there was a good argument that the requirement to be present in Parliament could involve “virtual presence”, she understood why the Victorian government was being cautious and opting instead to suspend Parliament.
“I can understand and sympathise with the Victorian government. They don’t want to risk litigation because if a court found otherwise, there would be questions about what had potentially occurred and whether legislation had validly passed,” Professor Twomey said.
“Nobody knows what the court’s decision will be. But if a government wanted to test the waters and put a test case to find out, it can. One way of doing it would be to just pass a bill that’s not really significant but simply a vehicle to test it … and to arrange for someone, perhaps another member of Parliament, to challenge it for the purposes of simply finding out the answer.”
Professor Twomey said while it was important for Parliament to sit to allow legislation to pass, she said parliamentary scrutiny could also be achieved via parliamentary committees, which are continuing to be held online.
Ken Coghill, a former Labor MP who is now an adjunct professor in governance at Swinburne University, said federal parliamentary committees tended to provide more robust scrutiny of government decisions as they were generally chaired by a non-government MP, unlike state committees.
“There’s no doubt there needs to be accountability through Parliament during a time of crisis,” he said.
“What is happening in the federal Parliament with parliamentary committees shows how it can be done well. You have Senate committees, which are very active in following through with ministers and officials about decisions that have been made.
“The fact it’s chaired by a non-government MP does assist public confidence in the process. Even with the best will in the world, a government member is conscious of the interests of his or her political party and therefore may not be as rigorous in pursuing particular accountability issues.”
The presiding officers declined to comment.
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