Last month The Age published an investigation, “The chosen few”, which revealed a pattern of Labor Party advisers being appointed to state public service roles and an increasing centralisation of power in the Premier’s office at the expense of the roles of government departments, ministers and MPs. Such shifts, we pointed out, mark an erosion of the Westminster system meant to ensure that the MPs we elect have the power to effectively represent our concerns within government, and that advice from the public service on spending and projects is reliably non-partisan.
The Victorian Parliament, like most jurisdictions around the world, has been severely disrupted during the pandemic. Credit:
It is against this backdrop that Premier Daniel Andrews’ remarks at a press conference on Sunday about the recent suspension of State Parliament are troubling. Another of the pillars of the Westminster system is that the government of the day has to give an account of itself to the elected opposition, crossbenchers and its own ranks. Yet to hear our Premier talk, it seemed that the parliamentary process was an optional extra, no more than a talking shop for people without more pressing duties.
“It’s not at the top of my list, the notion of rushing to take effort away from vaccinating people so that we can have a Zoom parliament, right? We’ll make up the days, we’ve said that,” he told an Age reporter. But it is not simply a matter of filling in a time sheet. His government’s decisions need to be scrutinised while they are being made, not once they are a fait accompli. And as many Victorians can attest in their own working lives, valuable work and big decisions, even arguments and scrutiny, can be done remotely.
As our state political editor, Annika Smethurst, points out, the idea that we have to choose between Parliament and a proper COVID-19 response is misleading. While parliamentary committees are continuing to work, we believe that at a time when government powers are such a presence in our daily lives, Victorians are entitled to expect that those exercising such powers will be visible and accountable in the state’s main democratic forum. Federal Parliament, it should be noted, is sitting at the moment.
Mr Andrews also suggested that the problem of Parliament sitting was a legal one. Constitutional expert Anne Twomey tells The Age that while there are risks that legislation passed in the current circumstances might later be found invalid, this could be addressed by passing a test bill on some matter of minor importance and then having it challenged in order to obtain a definitive court ruling.
This brings us back to the heart of the matter: whether we, the people of Victoria, consider Parliament so vital to the life of the state that positive efforts have to be made to ensure it keeps going. “I’m a member of that forum, so I’m never going to tell you it’s not important … it is absolutely, but I don’t run it,” Mr Andrews said. “That’s not my job, my job is many other things.”
But Mr Andrews is rather more than simply a member of Parliament – he is the dominant political leader of this state. To say, as he did on Sunday, that whether Parliament sits is a matter for the Speaker, Colin Brooks, or the President of the Legislative Council, Nazih Elasmar, is an abdication of an important part of his role as the upholder of standards in governance and someone who leads by example.
“I’m focused on keeping people well,” Mr Andrews concluded. It’s a worthy goal, and one the Premier is understandably keen to be associated with. But the health of our democratic institutions depends on their continued use and people being prepared to champion their importance, rather than treating them as an inconvenience or an irrelevancy.
The next time the Premier fronts a press conference, he should think about the other place where he and his ministers need to be standing up and answering questions.
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