Coronavirus prompts changes to hearings, access at Parliament House

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday March 17, 2020

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Should a government maintain an advisory body if it does not want to take advice from it? (Adobe)

Access to Canberra’s Parliament House will be temporarily restricted in a bid to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan said any committee hearings held in the building during the next parliamentary sitting week, commencing March 23, will not be open to the public.

They recommended that Senate, House and Joint committee hearings start using video or teleconference facilities as soon as possible, and witnesses can appear in person “only if necessary”.

“Committees should give serious consideration as to whether their business is essential,” they said in a joint statement on Monday.

The Presiding Officers requested MPs and senators to only bring “essential staff” to Canberra for the next sitting week, and urged them to follow the advice of health authorities at all times.

All external departments and agencies should cut down use of Commonwealth departmental passes to a minimum, and public servants should avoid non-essential attendance, they said.

The changes have followed consultations between the Presiding Officers, Parliamentary Departments and Commonwealth officers and agencies, including the Chief Medical Officer.

“These decisions have not been taken lightly and are being taken following detailed discussion and advice from the relevant authorities,” the Presiding Officers said.

From March 23, former parliamentarians, elected members of other legislatures, volunteers, and sponsored pass holders will lose automatic access to the private areas of the building. Building occupants have been urged to only sign in people who need to conduct “essential business”.

Meanwhile, press gallery members should avoid non-essential attendance of escorted visitors.

Scott and Ryan noted that Parliamentary proceedings can be viewed on the Parliament House website.

There will also be changes to the management of staff and operations of the chambers and the wider building to reduce the risk of transmission.

While Parliament House’s public areas and Marble Foyer will remain open to the public, the galleries in each chamber for the next sitting week will be closed.

All school group bookings and tours during the next parliamentary sitting week, and numerous large events being held in the functions spaces of the building, will be delayed or cancelled.

The Presiding Officers said they would give more details over the course of the week as the advice evolves, and to all parties via the Whips as necessary. The Department of Parliamentary Services will update building occupants on health measures via Information Circulars.

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