Ebony Bennett The Canberra Times, 4 April, 2020
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. State and federal governments are exercising broad new powers and deploying eye-popping public spending to manage the COVID-19 health and economic crises. But government transparency and parliamentary accountability will be crucial to preserving one all-important commodity: trust.
There can be no trust in government without accountability. Yet when the Federal Parliament last met, it adjourned until August, leaving Australia without vital parliamentary scrutiny and accountability for its decisions.
That’s why this week the National Integrity Committee – convened by the Australia Institute and comprised of retired judges and corruption fighters – made a critical intervention, calling for the establishment of a multi-partisan parliamentary oversight committee to ensure adequate scrutiny of the COVID-19 response while the Federal Parliament is not sitting.
The Hon Mary Gaudron QC, the first female justice of the High Court of Australia, explained the problem: “We have a national cabinet with no statutory or constitutional foundation, making decisions affecting us all now, and it seems, for many months and perhaps years into the future. In the present circumstances that body is fulfilling a vital national role. But the circumstances are not such as to require that its decisions are free of oversight.”
New Zealand has already established such a body to help fill the accountability gap during the COVID-19 crisis. Known as the Epidemic Response Committee, it is an all-party special select committee with broad powers, similar to those of a privileges committee, regarding calling witnesses and the provision of documents. The select committee was set up by consensus, with all parties represented and its hearings publicly broadcast.
The Ardern government itself moved the motion to establish the committee, with the Leader of the House acknowledging: “We are all making decisions at pace, and we’re all making decisions with imperfect information. Mistakes will happen. It is undoubted that mistakes will happen, and I think that’s one of the reasons why scrutiny, I think, is so important – so that where those mistakes happen, they can be picked up and they can be remedied.”
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