Dominic Perrottet is known as a man of principle. His first test will be to see if he believes in our democracy.
The Parliament of New South Wales is one of the oldest houses of representative democracy in the world, but it has recently been closed and by its own government.
Members of the New South Wales upper house reported for work as scheduled on September 14. Those from all parties except the New South Wales Liberal Party anyway. Then the president announced that they should leave. Dismayed, they asked the governor and attorney general to intervene and reopen our parliament.
Australia’s first democratic institution had collapsed, without even a military coup. So how did it go?
Covid cannot be the only reason, as no doctor has advised a stop.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr Kerry Chant had reviewed Parliament’s COVID-safe procedures and given his tacit approval to the upper house meeting. His initial notice to postpone the Parliament meeting was published on July 27 for one month. She did not renew her opinion on August 27, 2021. Legislative Council Speaker Matthew Mason-Cox of the Liberal Party said it was safe.
Indeed, if there were reservations about meeting in person, most of our state officials were prepared to meet by video link.
But none of the eleven ministers or parliamentary secretaries from NSW to the Legislative Council, each having paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to represent us, showed up.
Their absence, the president said, prevented parliament from sitting.
Is it true?
Standing Order 34 states that a Minister must be present when the Legislative Council is in session (Standing Order 25 allows a Parliamentary Secretary to replace a Minister).
It is extremely strange. This regulation does not exist in any other Australian parliament.
The regulations state that the Legislative Council “shall meet only if a minister is present in the House”. These regulations were intended to codify an old custom that the government was present when the upper house met. It appears to be a courtesy so that the House does not meet behind the back of the government. Fair enough.
However, using Standing Order 34 to shut down Parliament goes against the spirit of custom which urges all Members to attend.
It was up to the president to decide that politicians should meet, as stated in Standing Order 4 “Nothing in this Standing Order affects the rights, privileges and powers of the House”.
Parliamentary “privilege” is a fundamental right of parliamentarians to express themselves freely in the House.–an obvious precondition is that the House meet.
Bunilaterally closing the House there, when it should legally be open, a Member’s right to parliamentary privilege was withdrawn. In making this bad decision, the president chose not to defend his traditional role of “defender of the House” (if we read Rule 34 the way the Speaker did, it would mean that the government could simply decide never to show up and shut down parliament indefinitely ).
Democracy did not fail thanks to a clumsy accident. It was premeditated. The NSW government had announced that it would not send a minister or parliamentary secretary.
We can all see that our ministers of state are under tremendous pressure. These are extraordinary times. Confused times.
This is why we have our laws, our conventions, our regulations and, above all, our customs. Our traditions have helped us through difficult times before, including world wars and, yes, even a pandemic in 1918.
The NSW coalition government has used the rules to go against these traditions and, painfully, against its own citizens.
Maybe it’s because our government doesn’t know who we all are. It seems like we need to remind them that we are first and foremost citizens, not just potential COVID-19 patients.
Citizens elect politicians to parliament, and then parliament decides who can form the government. In the words of the High Court, the government owes its “primary responsibility… to Parliament ”, and Parliament is ultimately accountable to us – the citizens of the state.
In constitutional law, this is called “responsible government”. Prime Minister Robert Menzies has said that responsible government is “The ultimate guarantee of justice and individual rights”. We just don’t have a responsible government right now. How can he be responsible when our politicians do not even have the opportunity to meet and speak in the House?
The upper room is the ‘Examining house‘. It has become very relevant. In August, documents were produced in the upper house, at the request of MLC David Shoebridge under his parliamentary powers to compel the production of certain documents. These documents, were reported by the ABC to show that Berejiklian personally stepped in to help Daryl Maguire secure his $ 5.5 million grant. So when, The ICAC has announced new public hearings into Gladys Berejiklian’s undeclared conflicts of interest regarding this (and another) Wagga Wagga grant, it seems that these two events could have been linked.
Whatever one thinks of the ICAC, what is clear is that we need a democracy that works. It seems it wasn’t really the ICAC at the end that pulled the curtain on Berejiklian’s Premiership, nor the ABC. Was it perhaps the upper house, doing its job, for us as elected officials, functioning as a chamber of review?
We the people of New South Wales want our elected representatives in parliament to take center stage in asking questions on our behalf. Not the media. Especially since John Barilaro tells us that it was media pressure that has led to curfews, even though curfews have done little to control COVID-19.
It is also important that the Liberal Party does not lose its group label in the service of “quiet Australians”. Right now, it could be seen as the Party trying to turn us into “peaceful Australians”.
In his first remarks as NSW’s pending premier, Perrottet said “we want … to regain the life we love and the freedoms that are dear to us”. The first step he must take now is to immediately reopen both Houses of Parliament. This would essentially add parliament to the reopening roadmap, from which it is currently strangely absent.
Parliament has hardly sat since the last time our new Prime Minister addressed Parliament on budget night over 100 days ago: it is time for another big day. The one that will not only be “Haircut Day”, but also a real “Freedom Day”, by immediately reopening our parliament, the source of our freedoms. The citizens of NSW were born free.
David Corbett is a visiting scholar at the PM Glynn Institute.