The House was due to sit this week, but the August sittings have been postponed to September. What happened and how? And where to from here?
THE LONG WINTER (BREAK)
With the Delta variant of COVID-19 circulating in Sydney, Parliament was locked down throughout July. The building continues to remain closed to the public, and members and staff have been working from home. As July was the Parliament’s winter break, much of the work of members and staff was able to be moved online – and now into August, committees continue to be especially busy while working remotely, holding virtual hearings and meetings.
Convening a sitting of the Legislative Council is a different story. With the logistical challenges and public health concerns a sitting represents, the President, under the authority of a sessional order, made the call to postpone the sittings of the House scheduled for August until September.
THE SITTING CALENDAR
Let’s take a step back and first look at how the usual sitting dates come to be.
At the end of each year, the House agrees to the sitting calendar for the next year, which sets out the dates the House will meet and the dates of the Budget Estimates hearings. While the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly agree to their own sitting calendars separately, the two Houses usually sit on the same days, and the calendar tends to be pretty standard. The Houses usually sit in two-week blocks from February to June and from August to November, with a winter break in July and a summer break in December and January.
Under the current sitting calendar, the Council was due to return from its winter break this week. So how was this scheduled sitting postponed?
THE SESSIONAL ORDER
Back in March 2020, the House adopted a number of sessional or temporary orders to give the House more flexibility in the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these sessional orders provides that, in the event of a public health concern, the President is authorised to postpone a scheduled meeting of the House and fix an alternative meeting day or time for the House.
While this is a decision for the President, the sessional order provides he must consult with the leader or representative of each party and every independent member, so that all members are aware of what is happening and can have their say.
Normally, the House would have to meet to amend or overturn a previous decision, such as the sitting calendar. The sessional order is important as it allows the House to override the sitting calendar without having to meet in person. This is why the President must consult with all parties and independent members, as a decision of the House is normally determined by a majority vote.
The postponement of the August sittings is the first time the postponement sessional order has been used. Although a number of sitting weeks were not held in 2020 due to COVID-19, these were postponed by the House according to a special adjournment. (Check out our earlier blogs for more info on special adjournments and recalling the House here and here.)
HOW WAS THE SESSIONAL ORDER ACTIVATED TO POSTPONE THE AUGUST SITTINGS?
The Hon Don Harwin, as the Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council, wrote to the President asking him to postpone the August sittings under the sessional order. Mr Harwin noted that current health orders restrict public gatherings in Sydney in order to address the significant health risks and higher risks of transmission from the Delta variant of COVID-19. The President agreed and, after consulting with members, postponed the sitting.
The House is scheduled to next sit on Tuesday 7 September. Although the House may not be sitting right now, its important scrutiny work continues. The work of committees forges ahead virtually and documents are still being produced by the government in response to orders of the House.