Federal Parliament would sit in late August with a new set of COVID protocols to allow politicians to travel to Canberra, under a plan proposed by the Labor Party in response to the scrapping of the next sitting fortnight.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Saturday that the sitting fortnight, scheduled for August 4-13, would be cancelled after health advice concerning the coronavirus risk from outbreaks in Victoria and NSW.
I have received a request to defer the scheduled sittings of the Senate for August 4-6 and August 10-13 from Senator Cormann as the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Senator Wong as the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate has concurred with this request. 1/
— Senator Scott Ryan (@SenatorRyan) July 18, 2020
Mr Morrison said that acting chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly, had advised that “despite proposed mitigation measures, the risks posed by a parliamentary sitting are significantly higher and unlikely to be resolved in the next month”.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said Labor supported the move on health grounds, but wanted to find a way for Parliament to meet and continue negotiating important COVID responses.
Labor’s parliamentary business managers have now formally written to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, requesting a task force be formed to plan how to restart Parliament.
“With five weeks between now and the next scheduled sittings of 24 August, we have the time and the opportunity to determine the arrangements and health protocols that would allow Parliament to sit, should the health challenges be ongoing,” Labor’s managers in the House and Senate, Tony Burke and Katy Gallagher, wrote in a letter sent on Sunday.
“It must always be the aim to hold Parliament in person in Canberra wherever possible, so that the government can be held to account, and democracy can continue to operate as normally as possible.”
The letter, emailed to House Speaker Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan – both Liberal Party members – said cancelling Parliament “should always be a last resort”.
The Labor members said their party backed the early August suspension on the grounds that “the health and safety of Australians should be the first priority for all elected representatives”, but that the next scheduled parliamentary sitting week should go ahead in some format.
Federal politicians have been regularly sitting through the pandemic, but with controls such as a decreased number of members present in Parliament House.
Those present in the chambers have had to abide by physical distancing measures, politicians were told to only bring essential staff with them to Canberra, and non-essential people were not permitted in the building.
Since the abrupt cancellation of the early August dates, some had proposed a ‘Zoom parliament’ to be held over video conferencing programs.
Mr Burke and Ms Gallagher want to organise for a cross-party group of politicians to meet health experts to plan a COVID-safe Parliament.
“With this in mind, we propose that a working group be established comprised of the Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, chief medical officers of the Commonwealth and Australian Capital Territory, Leader of the House, Manager of Opposition Business in the House, Manager of Government Business in the Senate, and Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate to develop the protocols that would enable Parliament to sit in a safe manner, as scheduled,” they wrote.
“Parliament has already achieved the very difficult task of holding in-person sittings during the pandemic, and has done so without jeopardising the health of those inside Parliament House or residents of the ACT.
“No doubt, the current situation presents new and complex challenges, but these challenges should not be viewed as insurmountable.”