Parliaments adjourn in a race against time to legislate stimulus for the nation

In the face of economic and health calamity unlike any most of us have ever seen, Australia’s Parliaments, mostly adjourned open-endedly for now, have been racing against time to lessen the financial upheaval on businesses and households, while minimising the spread of coronavirus infection.

Even if it may be too soon to tell whether any of the measures are working, one thing is for certain, there is no shortage of action, the nation’s Government is acting swiftly on all levels, local, state & territory as well as federally. Underpinning the effort is Australia’s Reserve Bank. It launched coordinated action weeks earlier by slashing the cash rate twice in March to bring it near zero and pledging to start buying government debt securities (bonds) from Thursday 20 March.

The newly established National Cabinet has taken on a crisis leadership role, bringing together all of Australia’s leaders, comprising the Prime Minister, State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers, in addition to chief medical officers, to coordinate a national response to the pandemic. Even though states and territories do not always toe the line, as evident by differences in opinion around school closures and international arrivals, many have further strengthened the national effort by enforcing stricter social distancing measures and their own stimulus packages. That’s on top of Commonwealth funds already pledged to prop up the nation, with the most recent injecting $130 billion to defend jobs on Monday 30 March, in a third tranche of monetary stimulus, now totalling close to $320 billion, or 16.4 per cent of Australian GDP.

Tied up in this are funds to address the mounting human and social impact of Covid-19 in the form of $1.1 billion towards mental health services, domestic violence support, Medicare assistance for people at home and emergency food relief. Up to $669 million of this will go to Medicare-subsidised telehealth services, allowing Australians to remain at home and use phone or video conferencing to contact their GPs. A Community Support Package of $200 million will go to charities and community organisations as they offer emergency financial and food relief. $150 million will boost funding for programs such as 1800RESPECT, Mensline Australia and counselling support for families experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence. $74 million will support existing mental health services such as Beyond Blue and Lifeline that have come under increased demand.

There are indications the size of the latest tranche of stimulus may entail the return of Federal Parliament earlier than August now, but only for a day like last week to legislate the release and allocation of the funds. When asked about it earlier this week, Mr Morrison said he had already discussed the possibility with the Leader of the Opposition in their weekly telepresence meeting but had no dates yet. “We will be having to recall Parliament…and we put in place the measures, the mechanisms last Monday to enable that to be done in a much smaller arrangement, and that would be done in person,” the PM said. “Here in the Parliament, in Canberra to enable these [measures], this legislation to be progressed through, the Parliament to give effect to it…So it'll be convened at a time when officials can appropriately draft that legislation and we can share that with the Opposition and we can have it progress through the Parliament as quickly as possible, as we saw last Monday when we did that exact process.”

Most state and territory governments have already legislated their own financial relief before adjourning. Western Australia remains the only state with a parliament in session this week, while the ACT will return for a single day on Thursday 2nd of April.

On Tuesday 24th of March, the New South Wales Parliament introduced, debated and passed three emergency relief Bills to offer financial assistance to businesses affected by coronavirus and the recent bushfires. The Treasury Legislation Amendment (COVID-19) Bill reduces the annual tax liability by 25 per cent for businesses with less than $10 million turnover and will bring forward an increase in the payroll tax threshold amount to $1 million. The COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill other offers powers to police that allows them to arrest those suspected of breaching public health orders. After passing these bills, the Parliament agreed to adjourn until the 15th of September, delaying the State Budget and Estimates hearings until dates to be advised. The Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, Adam Searle, also established an inquiry into the NSW State Government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Public Accountability Committee due to report by 30 June 2021. After Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced $2.3 billion in funding on the 17th of March, Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Treasurer Dominic Perrottet announced a further $1 billion for small business and community services on the 27th of March.

Like New South Wales, the Northern Territory Parliament only sat on the 24th of March, passing two emergency Bills before adjourning until a date to be advised by the Speaker of the House. The Emergency Legislation Amendment Bill ensures that the Territory’s emergency declaration can last up to 90 days, as opposed to the five that had previously been legislated, while the Supply (2020-2021) Bill will permit the continued financing of publicly funded operations in the 2020-21 financial year. The indefinite adjournment raised concerns around the Territory’s Budget, with it now due to be handed down after the Federal Government hands down theirs on the 6th of October. This puts the Budget date after the NT election date of the 22nd of August, a highly unusual step. The pandemic also raises questions around whether the election will even be held on its currently scheduled date. Chief Minister Michael Gunner had previously announced $65 million in funding for small business upgrades and home renovations.

The South Australian Parliament sat on the 24th and 25th of March before adjourning until the originally scheduled 7th of April. Given that nearly all other Parliaments around the country have altered their sitting schedules, it is notable that the South Australian Parliament remains steadfast in adhering to theirs. Whether that is still the case on the 7th of April remains to be seen. In their two days of sitting, they passed two pieces of coronavirus-related legislation that allowed for the appropriation of over $15 billion in government finances until 30 June 2020-21 and similar to New South Wales, afforded more powers to police to enforce adherence to social distancing. On the 26th of March, Premier Steven Marshall unveiled the second part of his government’s $1 billion in stimulus, largely designed to keep South Australians in jobs and small businesses afloat.

The Tasmanian Parliament adhered to its original sitting calendar, sitting from the 24th until the 26th of March before then adjourning until the House of Assembly returns on the 18th of August and the Legislative Council on the 25th. While adjourning, Leader of Government Business Michael Ferguson said that Parliament could be recalled earlier should the need arise. Meanwhile, it passed legislation that would provide access to the State’s coffers and allow for Government to continue operating while Parliament was adjourned. On the final sitting day, Premier Peter Gutwein announced $985 million stimulus directed towards hospitals, medical equipment, small business and a freeze of utility bills.

Parliaments not sitting has not reduced State & Territory Governments’ legislative productivity, however with Victoria, having previously adjourned Parliament indefinitely, announcing on the spot fines for individuals and businesses that do not follow the State’s public health orders. The Queensland Parliament, which was due to sit from the 31st of March until the 2nd of April, delayed convening until State Budget date, expected on the 28th of April. The Australian Capital Territory announced a reduced sitting calendar in the lead up to their election on the 17th of October, with the ACT Parliament due to sit on the 2nd of April, 7th of May, 18th of June, 13th of August and 27th of August only before going to the polls. Western Australia has not yet made any announcements regarding changes to sitting schedules or Budget dates but are expected to do so when they sit from the 31st of March until the 2nd of April.

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