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Why the Palaszczuk Government is accused of exploiting coronavirus to avoid parliamentary scrutiny

Queensland’s politicians have just set a new mainland Australian record — as the Parliament sitting for the fewest number of days so far this year.

The busiest state legislative assemblies in 2020 have been Western Australia (32 days) and South Australia (30 days), while the Federal House of Representatives has managed to bring MPs from around the country to Canberra for 27 days.

The New South Wales legislative assembly last Thursday chalked up 19 sitting days since the new year — drawing level with Victoria — which has had to deal with the worst of the coronavirus outbreak in Australia.

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But our elected representatives in the sunshine state have only managed to sit this year for 18 days.

The only state assembly that has sat for fewer days than Queensland is sleepy Tasmania, which has so far reached 14.

The lack of Queensland parliamentary action is, in part, due to the decision to delay the budget — this time last year, the Queensland assembly sat for 22 days and held an additional seven days of estimate committee hearings.

Arguably, Queensland is the one state where a curtailed parliamentary schedule matters the most — with no Upper House for review and a general election scheduled for October 31.

The LNP Opposition, Katter’s Australia Party and the Greens are all crying foul — arguing fewer sitting days and the subsequent gagging of debates allows bills to be passed with minimal scrutiny.

That said, there was welcome bipartisan support for restrictions on parliamentary practice at the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

Leader of the House, Labor’s Yvette D’Ath, said in mid-March: “We are in unprecedented times, which require unprecedented measures”.

Ms D’Ath thanked the manager of Opposition business, Jarrod Bleijie, for agreeing to revised parliamentary practices, and he in turn thanked his Labor opponent, but also set out the general terms of the LNP’s support.

Labor MP Yvette D'Ath speaks during Question Time at Parliament House in Brisbane.
Ms D’Ath accused the LNP of failing to prioritise which bills should be debated within the time allocated.(AAP: Glenn Hunt)

“The Parliament’s priority should be to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, and the role of Parliament to hold government to account must continue,” Mr Bleijie said.

It took only 24 hours for this cooperation to disappear, as the Government moved to suspend the normal day’s sitting in order to debate a bill to deal with the health emergency.

State Parliament did not sit for another five weeks after that — as Queensland closed its borders and went into full COVID-19 lockdown.

When Parliament did resume there were time constraints placed on parliamentary debates, which the LNP and crossbenches argued Labor had been using to its political advantage.

Queensland Opposition spokesman for education Jarrod Bleijie.
Mr Bleijie argues there is a fundamental difference between Queensland and other state assemblies that have an Upper House.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

One of the worst examples they cited were amendments to Queensland’s electoral laws in June.

The Opposition and minor parties were only given 24 hours’ notice of 229 separate amendments, running to more than 100 pages.

It was too much even for Greens MP Michael Berkman — a lawyer who passionately agrees with the stated intention of the bill to limit the electoral influence of big money donors.

“I would urge the Government to stop this practice so that we as legislators and interested stakeholders have enough time to properly understand, consider and scrutinise legislation, other than in the most urgent circumstances.”

Greens MP Michael Berkman speaks to the media at Parliament House in Brisbane.
Greens MP Michael Berkman agrees the Palaszczuk Government is exploiting the health emergency.(AAP: Dan Peled)

Another bill designed to stop building sub-contractors from being exploited, also avoided more detailed scrutiny.

The Government tabled 69 amendments as the Minister for Housing and Public Works Mick de Brenni was on his feet delivering his second reading speech.

Shadow minister Michael Hart felt obliged to support a bill he agreed with, despite not having had to opportunity to see any of the amendments.

Labor blamed the Opposition for time-wasting.

Member for Burleigh Michael Hart speaks during Question Time at Parliament House in Brisbane.
Michael Hart felt obliged to support a bill he agreed with, despite not having an opportunity to see any of the amendments.(AAP: Glenn Hunt)

Speaking at the start of the July parliamentary sitting, Ms D’Ath accused the LNP of failing to prioritise which bills should be debated within the time allocated.

“The way the business program operates in Victoria — it has successfully operated for more than a decade — is that the bills are listed and whatever is not completed by the end of the sitting week is put,” Ms D’Ath said.

“Yes, members have the right to speak, but it has never been the case that everyone has the right to speak on absolutely everything for as long they want.”

But Mr Bleijie argued there was a fundamental difference between Queensland and other state assemblies that have an Upper House.

“When bills get debated through a committee and this House, that is it — it is done. The Government has the majority — it is its way,” Mr Bleijie said.

Mr Berkman conceded the Government might have a point about curtailing unnecessarily long debates, but agreed the Palaszczuk Government was exploiting the health emergency.

Queensland Parliament House in Brisbane through its front fence on George Street.
When Parliament did resume, there were time constraints placed on parliamentary debates.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

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