Former Judges Call for Establishment of NZ-Style Multi-Partisan COVID-19 Parliamentary Oversight Committee

A prominent group of former Australian judges who have been pursuing a federal anti-corruption watchdog have today called for the establishment of a bi-partisan parliamentary oversight committee to ensure adequate scrutiny of the COVID-19 response while the Federal Parliament is not sitting.

Such a body has already been established in New Zealand to help fill the accountability gap. Known as the Epidemic Response Committee, it is an all-party special select committee with similarly broad powers as 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 hearings are publicly broadcast.

When Federal Parliament is recalled, we would urge the government to immediately establish a multi-party select committee to enable scrutiny of the various Government programs dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

“Like Australia, New Zealand has shut down its Parliament due to COVID-19. However, NZ has found a non-partisan alternative to maintain accountability. Should our Parliament be recalled before August, it would be reassuring if the Parliament establishing such a multi-party select committee,” said The Hon Paul Stein AM QC, former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal and former President of the Anti-Discrimination Board.

“The establishment of such a committee represents a clever and principled compromise between the Government, which has rightly closed Parliament for public health reasons, and Opposition Parties which equally rightly want Parliament sitting to hold the Government accountable for its actions in a time of such crisis.

“The New Zealand Government has welcomed the oversight committee. Leader of the House Chris Hipkins specifically acknowledged that the Government would make mistakes because it must act so quickly and without perfect information, and said that the committee would ensure those mistakes were picked up and remedied,” Stein said.

“An Epidemic Response Committee, established with the consensus of the Parliament, would help secure accountability and give the Australian public confidence in the decisions of the Government in this time of crisis,” said Ben Oquist, Executive Director of the Australia Institute.

“In the middle of this unprecedented health and economic crisis, it is critical we do not let a democratic crisis emerge as well,” Oquist said.

The National Integrity Committee, convened by the Australia Institute, members are as follows:

  • The Hon Mary Gaudron QC, former judge of the High Court of Australia
  • The Hon David Harper AM QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal
  • The Hon Paul Stein AM QC, former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal, former President of the Anti-Discrimination Board
  • The Hon Anthony Whealy QC, former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal
  • The Hon Margaret White AO, former judge of the Queensland Court of Appeal
  • The Hon Stephen Charles AO QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal

Australia Institute report, Parliamentary Scrutiny During the COVID-19 Crisis, by researcher Bill Browne can be downloaded here.

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