Originally published in The Canberra Times on April 4, 2020

by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published by The Canberra Times, 01 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.”

The NZ committee appears to be working well, asking questions about when updated unemployment figures will be available (in days), why there are daily health updates but not daily economic updates (I would have thought that was obvious), and addressing the confusion over what will happen with rents (which remains uncertain in Australia too).

In ordinary times, we understand the need for scrutiny. That’s why our Parliament has a house of review in the form of the Senate. It plays a crucial role in reviewing and improving legislation, preventing unintended consequences and the like. In this time of crisis, when major spending programs are announced weekly and new public health orders are affecting our most basic civil liberties, parliamentary scrutiny is more important than ever.

The Prime Minister’s COVID-19 Coordination Commission is headed up by a former mining executive, and is heavy on CEOs and senior public servants but light on representatives from the unions and civil society -particularly the not-for-profit sector which is responsible for the vast majority of services to the homeless and otherwise marginalised members of our community. The new NSW police powers leave a lot to police discretion, which is either reassuring or terrifying, depending on who you are. No government is making perfect decisions, but scrutiny and accountability can help build trust and confidence when we need it most.

And let’s face it, trust in government has taken a beating lately. Prior to COVID-19, Morrison was infamously in Hawaii as the bushfires engulfed Australia. Following that, the government was embroiled in the sports-rorts saga, the main feature of which was the Coalition government spending taxpayers’ money to feather its own electoral nest instead administering the grants based on the most need.

Thankfully, the Prime Minister has changed his tune when it comes to spending public money based on need. Announcing that childcare would be free for workers on Thursday, he made the extraordinary comment that “it’s no longer about entitlement, it’s about need”. A far cry from the “lifters and leaners” rhetoric we are so used to from the Coalition.

The chief economist at the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, observed yesterday that with free childcare, doubling Newstart, and wage subsidies it turns out that “almost nobody believes neoliberalism is useful in a crisis”. Including the Prime Minister.

This must be a hard pill to swallow for many in the Coalition ranks, but it’s to his credit that Scott Morrison has grasped the scale and seriousness of the situation we are faced with and has been willing (for the most part) to set aside his government’s neoliberal ideology to do what’s best for Australians in these times of crisis.

He’s not the only one. Attorney-General Christian Porter has been praising ACTU secretary Sally McManus as trustworthy, sensible and focused on solutions in their dealings, after McManus reached out with an olive branch at the start of the crisis. It’s an extraordinary gesture from a union movement the government was seeking to destroy just months ago, but a necessary one to protect workers and one that has paid off for millions of workers.

Parliament will return this coming week, perhaps for one day only, to consider and pass the government’s $130 billion wage subsidy scheme – a scheme first suggested and pushed hard by the ACTU and eventually backed by business.

The scheme does not cover all workers. Migrant workers and many casuals appear to miss out, and there are concerns about business compliance, something a parliamentary oversight committee could pick up and seek to address. But frankly, it’s an amazing example of what can be achieved when a government is willing to listen and dump old animosities, to work constructively and co-operatively with unusual allies.

Just as neoliberalism doesn’t cut it in a crisis, the Prime Minister’s recent history of secrecy and evasion (Brian Houston’s White House invitation, sports rorts, and hiding his holiday to Hawaii) will not work in this current climate. The Morrison government will inevitably make mistakes – that’s understandable. But it is transparency and accountability that will build and preserve the public’s trust in the government’s response to this crisis. And we all have a stake in its success.

  • Ebony Bennett is deputy director of independent think tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett

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