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Parliament during a state of emergency


Update 23 March: Things have changed a lot in the 3 days since this was written!

As I rode to work on Wednesday, I bumped into a neighbour, a medical colleague, who queried why parliament hadn’t shut down, along with much of Australia? Within a couple of hours, we were debating exactly that in the lower house.

Our state government, like every government in history, is capable of over-reach when they, and everyone else, are distracted by a crisis. So parliament must subject the Andrews government to careful scrutiny, and push back if they go too far.

Jacinta Allan, known as “Leader of the House” because she leads the government’s parliamentary actions, moved that sitting hours be reduced, cutting out most of the time used by non-government MPs, and that parliament adjourns at 3pm instead of 7pm. This results in less transparency and makes it harder to hold the government to account.

I argued that shortening the hours in a mostly empty chamber would make no difference to virus transmission. We could make parliament safer by spacing MPs out more in the chamber, and even use the public gallery for some MPs, given that it’s now closed to visitors. And we we must improve our basic infection control, particularly hand hygiene and the disinfection of surfaces that we all touch.

The government then offered an amendment allowing adjournment speeches and members statements to be tabled, rather than read out. So we supported the motion, with some misgivings. But yesterday, after a similar debate, they removed the set date for parliament to resume. That would have been 5 May, state budget day, but now it’s whenever they decide.

I don’t think the government is up to anything sinister here. I could be wrong. Our state government, like every government in history, is capable of over-reach. Especially when they, and everyone else, are distracted by a crisis. So parliament must subject the Andrews government to careful scrutiny, and push back if they go too far, especially now we are under a state of emergency.

Why does the Andrews Government need scrutiny?

This week, Labor announced that they were lifting the moratorium on onshore gas drilling. When Greens MP, Sam Hibbins, asked the Premier how long he thinks Victoria should keep burning fossil fuels, he refused to answer. But he did say the decision was based on science. He used the word, science, a lot.

Think about that for a second. We’ve just come out of a genuine climate catastrophe; a prolonged drought followed by fires over an unimaginable extent of eastern Australia. And our Premier, spruiking his acceptance of “the science”, is happy to announce a new fossil fuel project, which will drive climate change for decades.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that this was announced in a week when we’re all transfixed by a virus. The willingness of the government to illogically shorten the hours of parliament and potentially reduce the number of sitting days, tells me that this pandemic could be used to justify less transparency, and by extension, less democracy. 

Back to the virus.

Overall I am impressed by the speed and extent of state and federal actions to boost our hospital system and delay community transmission, despite some inevitable errors and inconsistencies and a lot of criticism on social media. Recent government decisions to introduce social distancing, and to not close schools immediately, are based on advice from epidemiologists and public health physicians.

But I am very worried by the ongoing effect on employment, particularly in performing arts, restaurants, sport, travel, education and the list goes on. This week the Greens called for support for artists and those in related industries. We also called for a halt to evictions and ensuring no one has their power, water and internet cut off during this crisis. 

I understand many people are frightened right now. And I want to assure you, myself and my team are available to chat. If you have any concerns or need assistance and don't know where to start, contact my office. 

For those of us who still have an income, I think we should support local businesses that employ people as much as we can. Consider donating to the Inner North Community COVID-19 Fund which is an excellent local initiative. We should think about how to support restaurants and cafes. Getting take-away is one option, and if you go, take some hand sanitiser and make sure you're sitting a safe distance from others. (Update 23 March: take-away is the only option now.)

We are also calling for an increase in Newstart and greater support for those who have lost their jobs. Check out the Unemployed Workers Union for their campaigns too.

I’ll be writing more soon on the epidemic and how we address the extraordinary social cost.

Victoria finally establishes compensation for the stolen generations

On Tuesday Samantha Ratnam MP paid tribute in parliament to recently deceased Stolen Generation member Aunty Eunice Wright. Aunty Eunice was a proud Kerrupmara elder of the Gunditjmara Nation. She was a mother and grandmother, a respected and loved leader of her community and repeatedly called for reparations for the Stolen Generations, as have the Greens, particularly when First Nations woman Lidia Thorpe was an MP.

Samantha’s speech joined many other voices calling for action on this, and on Wednesday Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gavin Jennings announced $10 million to set up a scheme which could deliver redress payments, counselling or a funeral fund. It appears to be a parting gift – Jennings is also leader of the government in the upper house, and on Thursday he announced that he is retiring after more than 20 years in parliament.

If you want to read more like this, sign up to my newsletter.

Note: This blog was published on the 20th March, some advice may become outdated. Ensure you stay up-to-date by visiting the Victorian Health website.

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Dr Tim Read
Greens MP for Brunswick
20 March 2020
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