Palaszczuk Government must work to restore spirit of democracy, despite COVID pandemic
Palaszczuk Government must work to restore spirit of democracy, despite COVID pandemic

Sneaky way new laws passed should worry every Queenslander

Those mainlining the state election coverage last weekend would have noticed Seven News's twee background to their broadcast.

We saw the presenters with their guests, which included Treasurer Cameron Dick and Transport Minister Mark Bailey, sitting along the historical crescent bench seats of the Red Room in Parliament House, where Queensland's upper house used to convene.

It was certainly an interesting backdrop for a night of democracy.

Parliament House in Brisbane. Pics Tara Croser.
Parliament House in Brisbane. Pics Tara Croser.

But what was more interesting to some was that the rules that were apparently preventing parliament regularly sitting had not gotten in the way of a television broadcast.

Queensland parliament has sat just 18 days since the COVID pandemic began escalating in Australia in March.

If you include the six days in February, it's sat 24 days.

To give you a frame of reference, it sat twice as many days last year. And while we will have more sitting weeks in December when the Budget is finally released, we will still sit well short of a normal year.

Indeed, democracy hasn't been immune to the life-altering impacts of COVID either.

Of course parliament has needed to bend to cater for people's safety during a pandemic.

To start with, social distancing was introduced and regional members were encouraged to stay home, lest they pick up COVID in Brisbane and transport it back home to their communities.

But while Queensland began opening up and we - including campaigning politicians - have been able, encouraged even, to travel the length and breadth of the state, parliament continued to sit just three days a month. While the government allowed more people in to restaurants and welcomed increasing crowds into its footy stadiums to host more AFL and NRL games, parliament was apparently still too risky to host more than once a month.

 

Who cares, you might ask. It's just a fancy old room where a homogenous bunch of blowhards go to yell at each other, right?

Well, it's still pretty important because the laws they pass do impact our lives.

And how the government has managed the parliament during the COVID crisis should have you concerned.

Despite passing new laws allowing the parliament to sit more often by using video technology to maintain social distancing and include more MPs, the government never used them.

Instead, they stuck with a pared-down sitting roster, with fewer of the people's representatives taking part for arguably much longer than was necessary.

And in that time they have rammed through mega bills, sometimes 100 pages long, with reams and reams of amendments tacked on at the last minute - most of which hadn't had any public scrutiny.

While the government hasn't seen any problems with what's being happening, there are people who guard the institution of parliament who have.

Speaker Curtis Pitt. Picture: Annette Dew
Speaker Curtis Pitt. Picture: Annette Dew

Labor Speaker Curtis Pitt issued his own veiled criticism of what had been going on in the most recent sitting week in September when he spoke out to "affirm the important principle that members should be afforded the opportunity to contribute to parliamentary debate".

The comments came after the Opposition had complained about how the parliament wasn't being given the opportunity to properly debate laws which were being substantially changed at the last minute due to the number of amendments being made.

Agriculture laws contained amendments allowing significant work on Paradise Dam. Surprise farmers!

A Bill providing portable long-service leave to community service workers froze public servant pay, changed bail requirements, changed the Ekka public holiday and changed Youth Justice laws. Surprise again!

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk speaks during Question Time. Photo: NCA NewsWire / Dan Peled
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk speaks during Question Time. Photo: NCA NewsWire / Dan Peled

And laws increasing public funds for state elections and capping political donations also randomly amended election signage rules that happened to nobble the LNP. That was a surprise the conservatives were still complaining about on election day!

Mr Pitt sought the advice of constitutional law expert Gim Del Villar QC, who found the amendments were not properly scrutinised by the parliament or the public before they were passed.

While not in breach of the Queensland Constitution, the government's actions were "contrary to the spirit" of it, he found.

The Palaszczuk government has for months told us all how we need to change to live differently in this pandemic to do the things we normally do. And that is absolutely true.

But they need to do as they say and find a way to restore parliament. And the spirit of it.

Originally published as Sneaky way new laws passed should worry every Queenslander


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