Frontline workers have slammed the government’s decision to cancel the next sitting of Parliament, questioning why they have to go to work when politicians don’t.
MPs and senators were to return to Parliament House for the first two weeks of August, but the cancellation means they will not sit until August 24.
On Saturday, acting chief medical officer Paul Kelly defended the decision, saying the medical advice was that there was significant risk in allowing politicians from across the nation to come to the ACT.
“There is a large number of people from all over Australia converging in one place for an intense period and then going back to their normal places,” Professor Kelly said of a parliamentary sitting.
“That would be deemed a mass gathering and we would feel that there is a high risk.”
In principle, it is a workplace like any other. So if the injunction is to live with COVID-19, Parliament has had months to figure out how to work remotely and safely.
But the government’s decision was met with backlash from frontline workers, with one Melbourne ER nurse questioning why they had not worked out how to use video conferencing.
“I’m at risk of infection. I’m at highest risk of infection. I can’t Zoom in to work. This is a global crisis,” the nurse, who asked not to be named, told The New Daily.
If politicians expect nurses to turn up to work, nurses expect politicians to turn up to work.
“People are being encouraged to work from home if they can. What’s their barrier? Yeah, mate, no one’s couch is OHS compliant.”
And a Victorian teacher who works with year 11s and is still required to do in-classroom teaching said Parliament’s suspension was “hypocritical”.
We’re feeling like we’re the collateral damage of COVID-19.
“A lot of schools are discouraging teachers wearing masks because the kids get anxious. It’s physically impossible to social distance.
“It feels like Disneyland has opened its parks but not corporate officers.”
Parliament’s shutdown ‘unacceptable’
Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote to the Leader of the Opposition on Friday, to request that the sitting fortnight be cancelled.
“The government cannot ignore the risk to parliamentarians, their staff, the staff within the Parliament, and the broader community of the ACT that holding a parliamentary sitting would create,” Mr Morrison said.
“In addition, it is not feasible nor desirable to hold a sitting of Parliament that would exclude parliamentarians from a single state.”
This sitting would have been the first opportunity for Parliament to debate Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s economic update, which is due on Thursday.
But many have questioned why the federal Parliament did not organise a safe alternative.
Adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales and strategic health policy adviser Bill Bowtell, said it was “unacceptable” the government hadn’t worked out a plan B.
“Are we really saying it’s beyond the capacity of Parliament to sort out a Zoom meeting like everyone else? Seems odd to me,” Adjunct Professor Bowtell said.
“The chief medical officer has somehow found the situation with COVID-19 was so extraordinary it had to abandon its sitting. That’s not living with COVID. That’s giving in to it.
“Every other parliament in every other country have gone on. The New Zealand parliament, the Canadian, they’ve gone on.”
MPs torn over shutdown
The Prime Minister’s move to shut down Parliament was met with mixed responses from federal politicians.
Labor reluctantly supported the move, with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese arguing Parliament should add extra sitting dates in September to make up for it.
“We believe it’s absolutely critical that the Parliament sit in September, and we expect to be consulted much further in advance from any decision being made than what’s occurred with these circumstances,” Mr Albanese said.
“We’ll also be convening additional meetings of the COVID committee, established because of Labor’s demands, chaired by Senator Katy Gallagher, to hold the government to account.”
Centre Alliance senator, South Australia’s Rex Patrick, also argued for a rescheduled sitting.
“On the last sitting day in June, the government proposed a time-management motion to limit debate on as many as 13 bills,” he said.
That’s not democracy! We have important legislative and oversight work to do. Sitting days should not be cancelled, rather rescheduled.’’
Greens leader Adam Bandt said Parliament didn’t just need to reschedule, but also to adopt a plan for the future.
“For a long time now, the Prime Minister has been telling us that his suppression strategy will see repeated outbreaks in different parts of the country for months or years to come,” Mr Bandt said.
“But if this is the case, then his logic today – that Parliament can’t sit because one part of the country is experiencing an outbreak – could see the nation’s Parliament suspended for weeks and months to come.
“Not only is it vital for democracy that Parliament keeps meeting, but it is essential to tackling this pandemic.”