The first sitting day of the year, 4 February, commenced with the Leader of the House moving to suspend standing orders to permit the Prime Minister to move a condolence motion on the Australian bushfires. Debate on the condolence motion was to have precedence over all other business and the Federation Chamber would not meet that day. The House agreed and this meant that the sole topic of debate that day was the bushfires.
The Prime Minister’s condolence motion was seconded by the Leader of the Opposition and debate continued for the remainder of 4 February. The motion stated that the House acknowledged the devastation caused by the bushfires, the loss of 33 lives, destruction of over 3,000 homes, loss of wildlife, and devastating impact on regional economies. The House extended its sympathies to those who lost loved ones and recorded its gratitude for the service of the firefighters who lost their lives.
Family members of firefighters who lost their lives combatting the fires were present. As a mark of respect to their memory, all Members present stood, in silence, and the House adjourned at an earlier time than usual. Prior to adjournment, the matter was referred to the Federation Chamber which met for extended hours on 5 and 6 February, with debate on the motion the only item of business.
Address by distinguished visitor―President of Indonesia
His Excellency Mr Joko Widodo, President of the Republic of Indonesia, addressed Members and Senators assembled together in the House on 10 February, following welcoming remarks by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.
Election of Deputy Speaker
After Question Time on 6 February the Deputy Speaker and Member for Page, Mr Kevin Hogan, made a statement on indulgence informing the House he had been appointed to the Ministry and that he would resign from the role of Deputy Speaker prior to his swearing-in. The Speaker thanked him for his service and stated that the election for a new Deputy Speaker would take place on 10 February.
Following Question Time on 10 February the Speaker called for nominations for Deputy Speaker. The Member for Nicholls (Mr Drum) was nominated by the Member for Mallee and this was seconded by the Member for Page. The Manager of Opposition Business nominated the Member for Wide Bay (Mr Llew O’Brien) and the motion was seconded by the Deputy Leader of Opposition Business. Mr O’Brien was not present in the Chamber. Standing orders provide that a nominee for the position of Deputy Speaker does not need to be present at the election or inform the House whether he or she accepts the nomination. However, the Speaker explained that the intention was not to nominate and elect a Member against their will. Upon the Speaker offering Mr O’Brien an opportunity to advise the House in relation to his nomination, Mr O’Brien stated that he accepted the nomination and a ballot was conducted. Mr O’Brien was elected 75:67.
Following the declaration of the result, the Speaker noted standing orders provide that if a non-Government Member is elected Deputy Speaker, a Government Member must be elected Second Deputy Speaker. Mr O’Brien then confirmed he remains a member of the Government. An election was therefore not required as the Second Deputy Speaker, the Member for McEwen, is a member of the Opposition. The Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and Deputy Prime Minister congratulated the Deputy Speaker.
Ministerial statement―‘Closing the Gap’
The Prime Minister presented a copy of the Closing the Gap Report 2020 and made a statement, by leave, on 12 February. The report is the twelfth to Parliament since targets were set to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in matters such as life expectancy and child mortality. The Prime Minister remarked that the reports have been ‘a tale of hope, frustration and disappointment—a tale of good intentions and, indeed, good faith. But the results are not good enough. This is, sadly, still true.’ The Leader of the Opposition also made a statement, commenting that ‘if this day adds up to nothing but sentiment and speeches, if this occasion becomes merely a ceremonial renewal of good intentions and a promise to do better next time, that is so far short of parliament at its best and so far short of Australia at our best.’ A number of Senators and other guests were present in the Distinguished Visitors Gallery on the floor of the Chamber.
The Leader of the House moved that the House take note of the document, allowing Members to debate the subject matter of the report. Debate was adjourned and the matter was referred to the Federation Chamber where debate resumed on 13 February, with the Minister for Indigenous Australians making the first contribution.
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