COVID-19 is an infectious disease which, although unknown before the outbreak began in China in December 2019, is now a pandemic affecting many countries globally. The virus can spread through close contact with an infectious person or through contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze, including by transfer via objects or surfaces. Physical distancing (that is, keeping at least 1.5 metres away from others) and practising good hygiene have been identified as key to slowing the spread of the virus, for which there is currently no known vaccination or cure.
Following the World Health Organisation’s declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, on 18 March the Governor-General declared a three-month human biosecurity emergency period in Australia. Means to control the spread of the virus, including the introduction of physical distancing and restrictions on interstate travel, have had a significant impact on the way that the Parliament has been able to meet. This has included procedural and practical changes to meet the challenges imposed by the pandemic.
On 21 May 2020, the Committee agreed to adopt an inquiry into the practices and procedures put in place by the House during the COVID-19 pandemic. It wished not only to record the various measures put in place at this extraordinary time but also to identify whether there were any matters to consider should a similar event occur in the future.
Approach to the inquiry
This report covers the period from 18 March to 3 September 2020. While the pandemic is still continuing to affect Australia, and indeed at the time of writing the human biosecurity emergency period has been extended until 17 December 2020, the Committee has deliberately chosen to cover only this initial period in order to capture the specific details of, as well as contemporaneous reflections on, the arrangements put in place to date.
The Committee invited submissions from key office holders of the House, the Clerk and members of the cross-bench. Submissions were sought by 9 June and were received from the Manager of Opposition Business, the Member for Clark and the Clerk. On 16 June, the Committee held a private roundtable to which all members of the House were invited, and on 27 August also held a private briefing with the Speaker, the Clerk and the Serjeant-at-Arms.
The first cases of COVID-19 in Australia were identified in January 2020. The number of new cases rapidly increased and peaked in March. A relatively low number of cases were reported daily between mid-April and early June 2020. Cases then increased from mid-June, before decreasing again from mid-August. At the time the Committee adopted the inquiry and received submissions, infection rates in Australia had eased, and subsequent clusters in Victoria and New South Wales had not yet emerged.
Sittings during the period
There were five sitting periods in the time covered by this report: 23 March, 8 April, 12–14 May, 10–18 June and 24 August–3 September.
When the House met for the first time after the Governor-General’s declaration, on 23 March, standing orders were suspended to allow a coronavirus economic response package of legislation and supply bills to be considered. The Prime Minister made a ministerial statement, to which the Leader of the Opposition replied. Question Time was also held. The Federation Chamber did not meet.
Budget night had been scheduled for 12 May; however, on 20 March the Prime Minister announced that presentation of the Budget would be delayed until October, given the uncertainty that existed. As an interim measure, on 23 March three supply bills were considered and passed by both Houses.
On the same day, the House also agreed to an amendment to the standing orders and agreed to a resolution relating to meetings of the House.
In accordance with the terms of the suspension of standing orders agreed at the beginning of the day, the business considered was limited to items agreed between a minister and the Manager of Opposition Business—namely, motions relating to the approval of works and membership of committees. The Speaker also presented a message from Her Majesty the Queen, and his own associated statement, to mark Commonwealth Day.
The House agreed to a sittings schedule that would not see the House meet again until August. However, standing order 30(c) provides that, when the House is not sitting, the Speaker may set an alternative day or hour for the next sitting. The Speaker subsequently set 8 April as the next day of sitting. When the House met on 8 April, the focus was on bills to implement further elements of the Government’s economic response to the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, Question Time was held. Documents were presented by the Speaker and the Leader of the House, and two committee reports were presented. The Federation Chamber did not meet.
Following this, the Speaker then set 12 May as the next day of sitting, and the House then agreed to meet on 13 and 14 May as well. On 14 May, the House agreed to a new sitting schedule which included sittings in June and early August. The House met in June as scheduled. This included the first Friday sitting since 2008. During May and June, the House considered government and private Members’ business and afforded more opportunities to private Members.
The next sittings were scheduled to begin on 4 August. However, in July, following an increase in community transmission of the virus, most significantly in Victoria, the Prime Minister wrote to the Speaker requesting that the next date of sitting be set for 24 August. The Speaker subsequently notified Members that, in accordance with standing order 30(c), he had set Monday, 24 August as the time for the next meeting of the House.
The House then met from 24 August to 3 September as planned.
Structure of this report
The procedural, practical and contingency measures put in place during the period from 23 March to 3 September are detailed in Chapter 2 of the report. The Committee’s reflections on these measures in light of the House’s core functions, along with a set of principles it considers key to a successful response to a future pandemic or other emergency, are set out in Chapter 3.