Although history may not necessarily repeat, in difficult times it can bring us the comfort of repetition. But just how much has the Parliament’s response to pandemics changed in the 100 years since the Spanish Flu first arrived on our shores in 1919? Is the response to COVID-19, as Shirley Bassey famously sang, “just a little bit of history repeating”? Read on to find out for yourself.

What happened in 1919?

Just a few months after the conclusion of World War I, on 25 January 1919, the Spanish Flu (or pneumonic influenza as it was dubbed in Australia) hit our shores – exactly 101 years before the first positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Australia. With the first identified case occurring in 1918, the virus spread across the world, infecting 500 million and killing 50 million in four successively more virulent waves.

When the virus hit Sydney in early 1919, the NSW Government – then led by Premier William Holman (Nationalist Party) – enforced restrictions promptly and thoroughly. A special meeting of the Cabinet on 2 February issued orders requiring everyone to wear a mask and, anticipating hesitancy among some citizens, stated that “those who do not do so are not stating their independence – they are only showing their indifference for the lives of others…”. Libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls and places of indoor public entertainment in metropolitan Sydney were also told to close, although spectators were still permitted to watch football matches.

While these orders were generally complied with, some familiar topics were the subject of considerable debate: immunisation and mask wearing. While some people held ‘inoculation parties’, where prizes were awarded to ‘the shapeliest arm’, others argued that the widely available vaccine – which was produced by the Australian company Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) and targeted secondary bacterial infections, rather than the virus directly – would risk more lives than it saved.

Most of the government’s restrictions were lifted in late February 1919 and were not reintroduced when the virus resurged in the middle of the year. Instead, the government encouraged the people of NSW to take their own precautions – to apparent success. By September 1919, ‘pneumonic influenza’ had effectively burnt itself out in NSW, at the cost of 6,387 lives.

How were parliamentary sittings affected?

The NSW Parliament did not sit for the majority of the pandemic, returning after an adjournment of eight months on 19 August 1919. Upon the Legislative Council’s return, the President described the pandemic as “…the cause for profound distress throughout the State…”.

While the immediate effects of the pandemic were no longer being felt by the State’s hospitals and mortuaries, the parliament passed two bills in December 1919 to relieve the financial strain of the pandemic, which was still being felt by many in NSW.

The first was the Influenza Epidemic Relief Bill 1919, introduced in and passed by the Council without amendment on 16 December 1919. The bill sought to allow business owners who had suffered losses as a result of the pandemic to seek financial assistance from the government (of no more than 500 pounds).

The second bill – the Necessary Commodities Control Bill 1919 – reintroduced a ban on profiteering on certain commodities including the muslin and gauze essential for protective masks. A similar ban had originally been put in place in NSW at the start of World War I, allowing the government to fix their prices.

These measures seem to have had the desired effect, and the ‘pneunomic influenza’ epidemic faded from public interest as swiftly as it had initially swept through NSW. Indeed, it was not even a campaign issue in the State’s elections of 1920.

How does this compare to 2020?

Though separated by more than a century, the immediate response to the 1919 Spanish Flu outbreak bears many similarities to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our own first stage of restrictions and public health orders when hit by the then little-known COVID virus came in early 2020, when the NSW Government made a number of orders under the Public Health Act 2010 to combat the spread of COVID-19 by limiting the size of public gatherings and implementing hygiene measures.

With an outbreak growing in size throughout March 2020 – contributed to by the Ruby Princess cruise ship – a series of restrictions in line with decisions of the National Cabinet followed, which saw the temporary closure of non-essential activities and businesses.  The Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020 was also made on 31 March 2020, making further restrictions to the congregation and movement of people in NSW.

Numerous health orders have since been made to deal with various aspects of the pandemic, including the most recent resurgence of the virus.

The parliamentary sittings of 2020

On 24 March 2020, sessional and standing orders were suspended in order to permit the introduction of two bills without notice and their passage through all stages of both Houses on the same day. We covered these bills in detail in this blog from that time.

After the bills passed, the Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council moved a ‘special adjournment’ under standing order (SO) 74(4)(a), overriding the official sitting calendar so that the House would meet next on 15 September 2020. Wondering what makes this special? Read about it here! Despite this, the Council retains the power to recall the House at any time under SO 36, which it did on 12 and 13 May 2020 to consider further emergency measures to respond to the pandemic. You can read about those sittings, and their COVID-safe arrangements, here.

On 10 August 2020, the President of the Legislative Council informed members that the House would be recalled to sit on 25 August, in response to a request by a majority of members that the House meet sooner than the next scheduled sitting day to consider a range of matters.

The function of the Legislative Council, particularly in scrutinising the executive government, assumed a particular importance during the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020. A reduction in the number of sitting days (nine of the scheduled meetings for 2020 were missed) provided members with fewer occasions to hold the executive to account in the chamber itself. On the days that the House did sit, opportunities for debate and discussion were often limited by a focus on the swift passage of legislation. However, these difficulties faced by the Council paved the way for a series of changes to the way Parliament functions, including ‘virtual hearings’ for committees and the electronic tabling of papers.

How do the two compare?

In reflecting on the differences between the Spanish Flu of 1919 and the COVID-19 pandemic of today, some things appear consistent. Emergency measures – often made by order under existing legislation – allow the government to respond quickly, while legislative responses (which focus on financial support) follow. A key difference is the way that technology has enabled the parliament to respond, particularly through ‘going virtual’ in committee processes. In this sense, instead of a pandemic suspending parliament, this time around it has acted as a catalyst for change and innovation in the parliamentary process.

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