On 23 March 2020 the House of Representatives resolved to adjourn ‘until a date and hour to be fixed by the Speaker’, while the Senate resolved that orders of the Senate relating to meeting days for 2020 be suspended until 11 August and that ‘the President shall alter the day and time of the next meeting of the Senate’ at the request or agreement of the Government and the Opposition.
On 23 March also both the House and the Senate resolved additional practice and procedure changes, such as being empowered to meet, with the agreement of the Government and the Opposition, ‘in a manner and form not otherwise provided’ in their respective Standing Orders. The House of Representatives has also authorised the Government and Opposition to determine, by agreement, the rules and orders necessary to enable such meetings to take place, with the equivalent authority for determining the rules and orders for Senate meetings being given to the Senate Procedure Committee. The quorum for the House of Representatives is 31 members; for the Senate the quorum is one-quarter of the Senate (19 senators).
There has been some criticism of the long adjournment, and the concept of parliaments meeting virtually has been raised. Constitutional expert Anne Twomey has explored the constitutional and legal dimensions of the Australian Parliament meeting virtually and has suggested that it could be possible. The European Parliament is enabling members to ‘participate remotely’ in parliamentary activities including plenary meetings, and, notably, the Welsh National Assembly held its first plenary meeting virtually (by videoconference) on 1 April 2020. The Presiding Officer stated that the Welsh National Assembly ‘would continue to repeat virtual Plenary sessions for as long as needed’.
State and territory parliaments—changes to sitting patterns
Most of the state and territory parliaments have altered their sitting patterns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The New South Wales Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council last sat on 24 March 2020 and have changed their sitting patterns, with both chambers adjourning on 24 March and agreeing to return on 15 September 2020.
The Victorian Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council last sat on 19 March 2020 and have changed their sitting patterns, with both chambers adjourning on 19 March and agreeing to return at ‘a day and hour to be fixed’ by the Speaker of the Assembly and the President of the Council.
The Queensland Legislative Assembly last sat on 18 March 2020 and has changed its sitting pattern, adjourning on 18 March and agreeing to return on 31 March 2020. However, the Assembly also agreed that the ‘Speaker, upon advice from the government of the state, may set an alternative day or hour for the next sitting’, and does not appear to have sat on 31 March (two state by-elections were held in Queensland on 28 March).
The Tasmanian House of Assembly and Legislative Council last sat on 26 March 2020 and have changed their sitting patterns, with both chambers adjourning on 26 March and agreeing to return on 18 August 2020 (House of Assembly) and 25 August 2020 (Legislative Council).
The Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly last sat on 2 April 2020 and has changed its sitting pattern, with the Assembly not sitting on 31 March and 1 April as previously scheduled. The Assembly’s adoption of its 2020 sitting pattern in August 2019 included provision for changes by the Speaker if requested to do so by an absolute majority of members or as otherwise ordered by the Assembly.
The Northern Territory Legislative Assembly last sat on 24 March 2020 and has changed its sitting pattern, adjourning on 24 March ‘until a date and time to be fixed by the Speaker’.
The South Australian and Western Australian parliaments do not appear to have changed their sitting patterns (it is possible that the South Australian Legislative Council adjourned early on 25 March 2020).
Overseas national parliaments—United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States
The United Kingdom, Canadian and New Zealand national parliaments have changed their sitting patterns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UK Parliament last sat on 25 March 2020, with both the House of Commons and the House of Lords agreeing to rise early for the Easter recess and to return on 21 April 2020. Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have instituted measures to enable the work of the Parliament to continue during the pandemic situation.
The Canadian Parliament last sat on 24–25 March 2020 and has altered its sitting patterns, with the House of Commons adjourning until 20 April 2020 and the Senate adjourning until 21 April 2020.
The New Zealand Parliament last sat on 25 March 2020 and has altered its sitting pattern, with the House of Representatives agreeing to return on 28 April 2020. The Parliament’s Business Committee has been authorised to adjust sitting dates.
The United States Congress does not appear to have changed its sitting patterns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The House of Representatives last sat on 31 March 2020 and the Senate last sat on 2 April 2020.