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Motion: Establish a COVID-19 Response Committee

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. K.J. MAHER (Leader of the Opposition):

That this council—

1. That a committee, to be called the COVID-19 Response Committee, be appointed to monitor and scrutinise all matters related to the management of the COVID-19 response and any related policy matter and any other related matter.

2. That the standing orders of the Legislative Council in relation to select committees be applied and accordingly—

(a) that the committee consist of six members and that the quorum of members necessary to be present at all meetings of the committee be fixed at three members;

(b) that members of the committee may participate in the proceedings by way of telephone or videoconference or other electronic means and shall be deemed to be present and counted for purposes of a quorum, subject to such means of participation remaining effective and not disadvantaging any member;

(c) that standing order 389 be so far suspended as to enable the chairperson of the committee to have a deliberative vote only;

(d) that this council permits the committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it sees fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to any such evidence being reported to the council;

(e) that standing order 396 be suspended to enable strangers to be admitted when the committee is examining witnesses unless the committee otherwise resolves, but they shall be excluded when the committee is deliberating; and

(f) that public evidence presented to the committee be broadcast via the Parliament SA website, unless the committee otherwise resolves; and that uncorrected transcripts of evidence be published as soon as available with the understanding that a revised final version may be published subsequently.

 

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:06): I rise on behalf of the Greens to support this motion put forward by the opposition for debate today. This, in effect, establishes an oversight committee for the duration of the pandemic to explore and evaluate, and to hold to account the decisions that are made and the actions undertaken in these extraordinary times, in what are often called unprecedented times but are, indeed, precedented, and not only precedented in our history but precedented across the world and in other states.

The Treasurer hit the nail on the head when he said that the federal parliament has today established an oversight committee. They were slightly dragged kicking and screaming to do so but have agreed to a Senate oversight committee that includes the opposition and the crossbenchers in that parliament. New Zealand, of course, with Prime Minister Ardern has taken a slightly more consultative and I believe respectful approach and ensured that straightaway there was such an oversight committee.

Where we are shutting down parliaments, the idea that you would not agree to an oversight committee would be something that I think the public would quite rightly pour scorn on, and people would scratch their heads and wonder why a parliament was not doing its job of holding the decisions made in its name to account. Today in another bill, we are signing away a lot of that oversight, a lot of that scrutiny, a lot of the very fundamentals of our democracy.

This committee will go some way to providing the transparency that will affect the trust that is so needed in such a crisis so that people are not panicked, are not scared, are comforted and reassured that the parliamentarians are doing their jobs, and that the rule of law is being upheld, and that public health is the driver for decisions—not politics, not pantomimes, not some bizarre idea that every other parliament in the country apparently does not have a sitting calendar. I am not sure if the Treasurer has been on the internet lately but most parliaments publish their sitting calendar the year before the year that they sit.

Indeed, the Queensland parliament, while it gave itself powers back in March to potentially not sit until September, did reconvene. The federal parliament similarly talked about not reconvening until August, but here they are back today, because there was work to do. Part of that work was oversight and part of that work was necessary legislation, which we know will be needed even beyond this extraordinary day of debate today with this particular COVID emergency bill that is the latest to be put before this place.

Let's not consider the idea that parliaments would not sit, that members of parliament would not do their jobs and bring the concerns that are raised with them—where the errors are being made, where the oversight is happening, where people have fallen through the cracks, where the government does not have the capacity to hear those voices—to the table, because that is the role of all of us as elected members.

I think it actually should have been at the behest of the government today that we were setting up an oversight committee for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. I would have taken great comfort in the bill that is before us had that oversight committee been proposed by government and duly comprised, perhaps, of a joint house committee, but here we are, the house of review holding the government to account. It is very different, of course, from Queensland, where they only have one house, and the government of the day controls what the parliament does. Here we have a parliament of two houses, where it has been a very long time since the government of the day has controlled this house.

I assure the Treasurer that we will not be wasting public servants' time making them unduly give evidence, but what we will be doing is using the very tools that we are entrusted with as members of parliament to hold to account and to ensure the best possible decisions are made, even where there are errors—and there will be errors. I am sure we will all come to that particular select committee with good intentions and good faith, to get through this with all voices heard at the table, not just those of the Treasurer or the Premier, who could have ensured that an oversight committee was brought before this parliament this week. The Treasurer could have got on the phone and talked to more of his colleagues, rather than just putting his own personal view.

It would hardly have come as a surprise that this council would seek to effect some sort of oversight committee. Indeed, I should imagine that they are speaking reasonably regularly and that they could have had a small conversation about whether democracy needed to be put on hold for six months or whether it could continue, because some things need to continue. Some things are essential services, and democracy—transparency—is an essential service if we are to have that trust. With those words, I highly commend support for this motion.

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