Op-Ed: Tasmania needs a multi-party committee while parliament closed

Op-Ed: Tasmania needs a multi-party committee while parliament closed

Leanne Minshull's Op-Ed from April 9, 2020: LEANNE MINSHULL: Take a tip from New Zealand, where a committee with live broadcast is a parliament stand-in

Read it here at the Mercury

The Tasmanian Government has acted swiftly and with empathy during this COVID-19 crisis. Premier Gutwein has not only been swift to act, he has communicated decisions clearly and transparently. Supporting the Government has been a parliament working in good faith.

It has been refreshing to watch parliament functioning for the good of Tasmanians rather than the fortunes of political careers. Changes to legislation have been proposed by opposition parties in the chamber and been accepted. From all accounts, this spirit of co-operation is continuing, with the Premier keeping in contact with the leader of the ALP and the leader of the Greens. It’s less adversarial and a more collegiate and co-operative parliament.

However, given that parliament will not sit again until August, the people of Tasmania deserve a more formal mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability. During this parliamentary shutdown, restrictions on civil liberties — outrageous weeks ago, are today necessary.

We also need a mechanism to ensure government is making the best decisions possible. In a crisis you need to move quickly, without perfect information and mistakes are inevitable. But those mistakes can be minimised and remedied with proper scrutiny and oversight.

The Tasmanian Government could build upon the leadership it has already shown by establishing a multi-party select committee to enable scrutiny of the various government programs dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

Such a body has been established in New Zealand. The Epidemic Response Committee is an all-party special select committee with similarly broad powers as those of a Privileges Committee regarding calling witnesses and provision of documents. The committee was set up by consensus with all parties represented, and hearings are publicly broadcast. New Zealand’s Epidemic Response Committee met three times on the week of March 30, days after it was established. The committee uses the commercial teleconference software Zoom to conduct its meetings remotely and broadcast them live to the public.

During its first week, the committee questioned representatives from the government on a variety of topics, including:

WHY BAKERS and butchers have to close while supermarkets remain open.

RISKS OF TESTING for symptoms at the border (for example, if asymptomatic people are not identified).

WHEN JOBS figures will be available (the government said a matter of days).

WHY HEALTH updates but not daily economic updates have been given.

CONFUSION over what will happen with rents (ad hoc agreements between lessor and lessee vs the government imposing rent relief).

REPORTS OF AIRPORTS not enforcing the 1.5-metre social distancing.

The committee has heard from experts outside of government who have given information on topics like the economic recovery and why it is important for the recovery that public servant jobs are secure.

Private collaboration between leaders of the three parties in Tasmania is good, but we can do better. A public Select Committee including independents and representatives from all parties would give Tasmania its best chance to emerge from this crisis as quickly and strongly as possible. It would ensure transparency and that more voices be heard when making those decisions. Such transparency and accountability would cement Tasmanians’ trust in the Premier during the epidemic, building on the goodwill he has already created by responding rapidly, sensibly and with compassion to this unprecedented health crisis

"Parliament House [Hobart]" by Jorge Lascar is licensed under CC BY 2.0