The Parliament’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Tuesday, 28 July 2020 in General interest, Chamber, Procedural, Committee

Both Houses of the Parliament sat from 10 to 18 June 2020 in what was the first full sitting fortnight since the beginning of March. In the first week, the Houses sat on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (the first sitting Friday since 2008). A revised sitting calendar was agreed on 14 May with the Parliament scheduled to sit next on 4 August. With an escalation of coronavirus transmission in parts of the country, the Speaker of the House of Representatives notified Members that the House will meet next on 24 August and the President notified Senators in similar terms.

The House of Representatives resolved on 23 March to allow the House to meet in a manner and form not otherwise provided by the standing orders (if the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business agree). The way in which Members may be present (including for quorum purposes) is to be determined by the Speaker. For the sittings held on 23 March, 8 April, 12-14 May and 10-18 June the normal quorum requirement was met. Standing orders were amended on 23 March to enable motions to suspend standing orders without notice to be carried by a simple majority (rather than an absolute majority) if the Leader of the House and Manager of Opposition Business agree. This option has been exercised.

The Senate had also agreed that it may meet in a manner and form not otherwise provided for in the standing orders with the agreement of the Leaders of the Government and the Opposition in the Senate, with rules determined by the Procedure Committee. While this provision was a necessary safeguard, minor adjustments to chamber proceedings have sufficed to accommodate the impact of the pandemic without the need to invoke this order. The Senate also established a wide-ranging select committee to scrutinise the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Pairing of Government and Opposition Members and Senators (an unofficial arrangement) has been used to maintain the party composition of the Houses while fewer Members and Senators are present in the chambers during sittings. Special seating arrangements in the House and Senate chambers ensure appropriate distances are maintained. The viewing galleries have been closed to the public and, from 25 March, Parliament House itself has been closed to visitors. All chamber proceedings continue to be broadcast on the Parliament’s website. Many parliamentary staff have been working from home.

Some committees, having suspended their inquiries until more favourable conditions returned, are now resuming their regular inquiry work. Others continue to meet virtually using tele and video-conferencing arrangements.

On 2 July the Speaker and the President of the Senate announced that Parliament House will reopen to the public from Saturday, 4 July and that school visits will be available from Monday, 20 July. The reopening will be staged, and subject to COVID-safe measures. Further advice on access to the public galleries of the Senate and House of Representatives, and to committee hearings, will be provided before Parliament resumes sitting in August.


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