Prominent judges call for parliamentary oversight committee to scrutinise COVID-19 response

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday April 2, 2020


A number of distinguished judges have called for the establishment of a bi-partisan parliamentary oversight committee to hold the federal government’s coronavirus response to account while parliament is closed.

It follows calls from Labor for parliament to continue to sit, and the establishment of a similar committee in New Zealand.

The judges have urged the government to establish — once parliament is recalled — a multi-party select committee to enable scrutiny of the programs currently addressing the COVID-19 crisis.

Former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal and ex-president of the Anti-Discrimination Board Paul Stein on Thursday said it would be “reassuring” if parliament established such a multi-party select committee, should it be recalled before August.

“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,” he said.

Along with Stein, members of the National Integrity Committee would include former judges Mary Gaudron, David Harper, Stephen Charles, Anthony Whealy, and Margaret White.

The Australia Institute would convene the committee. Its executive director, Ben Oquist, argued the body would “help secure accountability and give the Australian public confidence in the decisions of the government in this time of crisis”.

READ MORE: Five principles to guide the COVID-19 policy response: don’t overlook the long-term impact of decisions made now

Late last month the NZ government established an all-party special select committee to provide this scrutiny over the Ardern government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. All of the Epidemic Response Committee’s hearings are publicly broadcast.

Stein noted the NZ government had 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,” he said.

On Wednesday shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus called for parliament to continue to sit for the purpose of scrutinising the emergency powers the government has obtained during the pandemic, as well as future decisions that he argued would have “extraordinary consequences for millions of Australians and for the social and economic fabric of our country for at least a generation”.

“Last time our parliament met, Scott Morrison shut it down for five months. One fortunate by-product of the Gov’s recent (& very welcome) reversal of its position on providing wage subsidies is that Mr Morrison has to re-convene parliament sooner than he wished,” he wrote on Twitter.

“When the parliament re-convenes, Mr Morrison must not shut it down again as soon as he gets what he needs – Parliament should continue to sit in some way, shape or form during the current crisis (e.g. with the assistance of technology or with fewer MPs attending in person).

“Parliament has given the government emergency powers to respond to this crisis. Every member of the parliament has a role in ensuring that those powers will be exercised in the best interests of their constituents and of our nation.”

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