Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing calls to intervene and stop a series of Liberal fundraisers planned for Parliament House later in August, amid concerns from crossbenchers that they pose a coronavirus risk.
The fundraising events, first reported by The Guardian, reportedly cost $2500 a head and are a money-spinner for the Western Australian branch of the Liberal Party.
The Prime Minister’s own assistant minister, Ben Morton, is one of the key guests, and Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham, Social Services Minister Anne Ruston and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher are also slated to attend.
“This whole thing just reeks of danger and the Prime Minister needs to show some leadership and put a stop to it,” independent South Australian senator Rex Patrick told the ABC.
Senator Patrick’s concerns were echoed by crossbench MP Zali Steggall, who said parliamentarians should be focused on the task of serving the public while in Canberra.
The WA Liberals have been approached for comment but have so far declined to say where the political donors are likely to be travelling from, and whether some will be coming from outside the ACT.
“I think it’s hypocrisy. It’s dangerous hypocrisy,” Senator Patrick said.
“Politicians have to lead by example, particularly in circumstances where we have people coming from all sorts of jurisdictions, mixing in with each other and risking the potential spread of coronavirus back into their own communities when they return home.”
Sitting weeks scheduled for the start of August were abandoned in July, after advice from acting chief medical officer Paul Kelly about coronavirus risks.
Any politicians travelling from Victoria for the sitting period have been required to strictly quarantine for two weeks ahead of the sitting period.
The WA Liberals said the Capital Hill fundraisers would comply with all coronavirus restrictions, and were not large gatherings.
In the ACT, a public health emergency has been declared and those organising indoor events have to observe social distancing.
The events must not exceed one person for every four square metres of space and are also capped at 100 participants.
Fears fundraiser could jeopardise Parliament
Ms Steggall, the member for the Sydney lower house seat of Warringah, said many people had been frustrated that some parliamentary sittings were cancelled, and were worried about whether the government was being appropriately scrutinised.
“At this time, all MPs’ priority and focus should be representing their electorates and helping their communities,” she said.
“We have had a limited ability for Parliament to sit, and this should not be jeopardised for party fundraisers.”
But Senator Birmingham defended his attendance, arguing that, as Tourism Minister, he was in favour of events that supported the hospitality industry, as long as they complied with coronavirus restrictions.
“Businesses that rely on hosting meetings, events and functions have been hit for six,” he said.
“People shouldn’t compound their pain by criticising events that support economic activity and protect local jobs, when they are being conducted entirely within the strict COVID guidelines.”
Senator Patrick, who was previously diagnosed with coronavirus himself, said politicians were taking unnecessary risks that could impact on their own electorates.
“I’m a politician who had COVID-19 without any symptoms,” he said.
“We need to adopt a precautionary principle here. We need to be very cautious about who it is that we meet with, and minimise all activity.”
While he maintained that only essential meetings should be in the political diary, he stopped short of arguing that all social activity should be cancelled, saying dinners with colleagues should still be able to go ahead.
“Politicians need to, of course, eat,” he said.
“But there is no real reason for people to gather, particularly in circumstances where they are coming from different jurisdictions.”
Last week, a South Australian Liberal fundraiser drew critics, when it catered for 700 people at the same time as the Liberal government in that state reimposed a 75-person cap on funerals and weddings.
Senator Patrick said the inconsistencies showed a double standard being applied that revealed an “awful culture among politicians”.