Politicians forced into quarantine can expect to be tested for COVID-19 and have police knock on their doors, under plans to protect federal Parliament from a coronavirus outbreak.
Dozens of members and staff went into isolation over the weekend, but some say they’re still not sure exactly how Parliament House will work when they return to Canberra.
Sunday marked 14 days until federal Parliament again meets on August 24.
Although it is expected the House of Representatives and Senate will operate under COVID measures established earlier this year – such as reduced capacities in the chambers and greater distance between members – there’s also a new rule.
Victorian politicians must quarantine for a fortnight before being allowed to join their fellow members.
At least a dozen of Victoria’s 50 political representatives – 38 MPs and 12 senators – went into quarantine over the weekend, either in their home state or in the Australian Capital Territory, including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt.
“The minister will undergo quarantine alone and will continue his ministerial and electoral duties from quarantine,” a spokesperson for Mr Hunt told The New Daily, adding he would spend his 14 days in Canberra.
ACT acting chief health officer Vanessa Johnston said politicians quarantining in her territory would be subject to the same rules as everyone else, including regular door-knocks from authorities to check they were properly isolating.
“Enforcement of quarantine requirements is the same as for all individuals in quarantine in the ACT,” she told The New Daily.
“Individuals are contacted daily while in quarantine to ascertain their health status and support requirements, if any.”
Ms Johnston said parliamentarians in quarantine would have to be tested for COVID-19 on days 10 to 12, then record a negative test result, before being released into the Canberra community.
Most of the politicians deciding to quarantine are understood to be Coalition members and ministers, but The New Daily understands several Labor MPs are also quarantining at home in Victoria.
It’s vital that Parliament sits on 24 August. It’s also vital that Victorians are represented and their voices are heard.
Victorian MPs and senators must be allowed to speak and participate in debate via video link if they aren’t able to be in Parliament. https://t.co/lyeCUjIAqX
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) August 6, 2020
Labor had been pressuring the government to allow Parliament to sit again, after the sitting fortnight for early August was cancelled on health advice.
However, rules obligating Victorian members to quarantine saw ALP leader Anthony Albanese call on the government to allow Victorians to video-call into Parliament – similar to arrangements used in Senate committees for months.
“We’ve indicated publicly we are willing to support video link being used for speeches, questions and answers. The issue now is whether the government allows it,” Tony Burke, Labor’s manager of opposition business, told The New Daily.
“There has never been a time where it is more important for the voices of Victorian MPs to be heard.”
Greens leader Adam Bandt, the Member for Melbourne, is understood to be quarantining in Victoria, while other Victorian Greens members were considering their options.
He called on the Parliament and government to work quickly and allow members to appear via video.
“For everyone else in the country, 2020 has been a year of workarounds and online meetings, and politicians shouldn’t be exempt,” Mr Bandt said.
“I’ve been concerned that the government has been slow in bringing about solutions for the House of Reps and Senate, with most other workplaces adapting months ago.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had no objection to MPs calling in via video, but that technology and procedural issues may prove a barrier.
He also said digital participation should be restricted to asking questions and making speeches, not to voting on legislation, a point Labor agrees on.
“If I had to be isolated for whatever reason I would hope to participate in question time and be able to do that if I had to do it remotely, fine,” the PM said Friday.
“They are sensible ideas and they’re ones that the government had already been contemplating.”
Hey @ACTHealth! I made it to Canberra and am quarantining from today to make sure I can sit in @AboutTheHouse on Monday fortnight. You’re busy, but if someone comes to confirm I’m here don’t be afraid to bring a double espresso with you … pic.twitter.com/MlK8dyGbc6
— Tim Wilson MP (@TimWilsonMP) August 8, 2020
Negotiations between government and opposition are continuing, but one Victorian who won’t need to call in will be Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who drove to the ACT from Melbourne on Saturday.
“Some MPs can’t do this because of health or family situations, but it is no more than we are asking Australians to do,” he told The New Daily.
Mr Wilson shared his car trip on social media over the weekend, including wearing a face mask as he drove and crossed the state border.
He is currently isolating in a Canberra apartment.
I call this self portrait: Converting a bicycle into an exercise bike in quarantine while watching ABC’s Insiders on a dreary Canberra Sunday morning … pic.twitter.com/vlvBaA1kAJ
— Tim Wilson MP (@TimWilsonMP) August 9, 2020
“It’s manageable as a one off, but the bigger issue is if we have to do this every time Parliament sits for a while,” he said.
“Surely a rigorous testing and limitations option is more sustainable.”