On the face of it, the proposition that the COVID-19 pandemic makes it too dangerous for the Australian Parliament to sit might seem to have some almost reasonable basis. When Parliament sits, lots of politicians and their staff descend on Canberra, circulating around the city and potentially creating opportunities for the spread of the virus. Many would come from virus-stricken Victoria, it is argued, and the risks are too great to contemplate.
Like I said, it almost sounds a bit reasonable, and yet I don’t buy the story.
This is a democracy – so we are told from time to time – and in periods of emergency the oversight of the representatives whom we have collectively elected should be critically important. Think about all the things that are happening now: important decisions about international arrivals and departures, about investment in vital research and clinical care, about defence force deployments, about international relations, about economic support to people and organisations affected by the pandemic – the list could go on for pages. All these decisions ought to be scrutinised properly before being implemented. That’s what happens in democracies.
Other organisations have managed
I don’t believe it would have been insurmountably difficult for Parliament to have been safely convened in a way that minimised and managed risks. After all, many people and businesses have faced the challenge of the pandemic and found creative ways to continue their activities safely. Surely the crucial core of Australia’s democratic system doesn’t have to be an exception.
Interestingly, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg must agree with me, at least to a point. He represents the seat of Kooyong in Melbourne, but is applying for an exemption from the interstate travel ban in order to attend an economic update to announce what will follow the soon-to-expire “Jobkeeper” program after September.
The same medical officers who were apparently wringing their hands with worry about the risks from parliament sitting don’t seem troubled by the prospect of this exemption.
Most critics of the decision to cancel the scheduled August sittings of Federal Parliament appear to be homing in on the perceived hypocrisy of the government’s demands that, for the sake of the economy, schools must keep operating. It’s also odd, in another way, that gambling joints – despite their apparent riskiness as spreading grounds for the virus – appear magically free from government concern.
It smacks a little of radio jock Allan Jones who, at the beginning of the COVID drama, was on air to talk to down the dangers of the virus but who nevertheless apparently thought it wise to forsake the city and retreat to his rural estate. I don’t blame him for shifting his digs, but to do so whilst claiming the pandemic was no big deal didn’t sit well.
And again, if the Prime Minister is really serious about wanting Australians to avoid crowded places where the risk of virus spread might be an issue, why does he insist on being photographed at the footy? Surely he realised his actions would send a message, so what message was he trying to send?
COVID advice from Donald Trump?
While on the topic of messaging from the Prime Minister, what are we to make of the reports, in the Murdoch press of course, that Mr Morrison spent half-an-hour on the phone last week to US President Donald Trump, talking about the need “to re-open economies safely”?
I realise Mr Trump has a surprising number of fans who seem undeterred by the many clear indicators that he is a liar, a cheat, a crazy guy and an incompetent administrator. And I understand that such a man probably has many things to teach a prime minister like Mr Morrison. But with as much respect as I can bring to bear here, Mr Trump hardly seems like the right person to talk to about managing any aspect of the coronavirus pandemic. The US has perhaps the world’s worst record on dealing with the virus, and the Trump administration’s latest admonition that “science must not be allowed to get in the way” of schools re-opening, is particularly hair-raising.
Of course it’s possible that the story about the two leaders discussing the pandemic was slightly exaggerated and maybe they spent a bit more time talking about Mr Morrison’s promise to buy a lot of weapons and missiles to fortify Australia against China – Mr Trump’s favourite punching bag.
Either way it makes me nervous. I feel anxious thinking about Mr Morrison – guided by Mr Trump and encouraged by Mr Murdoch – running Australia without the level of scrutiny that should be provided by our elected representatives.