What the special Covid-19 Select Committees should do

By Dr Sarah Moulds, one of Australia’s parliamentary committee experts*

Select Committees ae being used nationally and in the states and territories to help safeguard our civil liberties and human rights, and to try to rein in any tendency to abuse of emergency powers.

They have a very important role to play, particularly when parliaments are ‘in recess’.

As far as possible any Select Committee should seek to engage their entire community, experts and key government agencies in its work. They should all use traditional written submission-making processes but also alternative engagement strategies, including for example:

  • government’s web platforms for online submission or responses to survey questions,
  • social media to promote the work of the select committee and encourage community engagement,
  • third party polling if possible, and
  • the holding of ‘virtual’ community forums, particularly targeting regional and remote communities, especially Indigenous ones.

The Select Committee must reflect the broader views of the community in its reporting on the emergency legislation and related regulations.

The committee’s consultation strategy should be supported by a range of ‘Plain English’ fact sheets and dedicated ‘front’ pages of the relevant parliament’s website so people can quickly and easily locate the Select Committee’s terms of reference, and copies of all relevant legislation and delegated legislation.

The Select Committee should embrace participatory membership from a diverse range of MPs and provide for a subscription update service for MPS and their staff (and interested groups and members of the public) that could include alerts to indicate whenever a public submission has been received, or whenever a new direction has been issued, or to update subscribers on the use of powers under regulations.

A quality and speedy ‘real time’ information flow is critical to ensuring high quality engagement with the Select Committee by MPs, experts and others.

Relevant experts and organisations should be actively invited to participate in the Select Committee’s review role and supported to do so wherever possible. This should include more than a written email invitation to provide a submission, and ideally should be supported by at least a telephone call and/or an opportunity to speak via video conference to the committee’s secretariat or membership.

Many experts and community organisations are completely overwhelmed managing front-line service delivery under the virus crisis. Proactive ‘reach-out’ activities are needed to ensure a broad range of expert engagement occurs. This will in turn greatly improve the quality of submissions received by the Select Committees.

Alternatively, ‘stakeholder leaders’ should be identified by the committee (such as the Law Society, civil liberties and rights groups, peak mental health, aged and housing bodies, etc). They could be supported to host their own online community forums to help broaden and deepen input to the committee’s deliberations.

When undertaking the review function, the Select Committee should be guided by the subject matter of the relevant legislation and delegated legislation. A useful model would be that of the federal Scrutiny of Bills Committee.

The Select Committee should analyse and consider the extent to which each legislative or regulatory response to COVID-19:

  • unduly trespasses on personal rights and liberties;
  • grants administrative powers (and that they are defined with sufficient precision);
  • provides appropriate review of administrative decisions;
  • appropriately delegates legislative powers; and
  • ensures the exercise of legislative powers are subject to sufficient parliamentary scrutiny.

Dr Sarah Moulds is a lecturer at the University of South Australia’s Law School and co-founder of the Rights Resource Network SA.  She has teaching and research interests in public law, human rights, counter-terrorism and criminal law, administrative law and anti-discrimination law. Dr Moulds’ career includes seven years at the Law Council of Australia including as Director of Criminal Law and Human Rights, and more recently as a Senior Project Officer at the South Australian Law Reform Institute. Her PhD thesis, entitled ‘The Rights-Protecting Role and Impact of Commonwealth Parliamentary Committees: The Case of Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Laws’, received a U. Adelaide Research Medal and Dean’s Commendation for Doctoral Thesis Excellence and will soon be published as a manuscript by Springer Nature. Dr Moulds is a member of Civil Liberties Australia.

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING about keeping close watch on the emergency laws:

Most draconian laws in the history of Queensland’ need more scrutiny

The Queensland Council for Civil Liberties has backed the LNP’s call for parliament to establish a committee to oversee the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The parliamentary committee should have members from all political parties and it should be chaired by non-government MP.

“The coronavirus emergency has been used to justify the enactment of what are probably the most draconian laws in the history of Queensland. Those laws must be the subject of proper, continuous review,” council president Michael Cope says.   Coronavirus LIVE Queensland updates: parliament sits to consider emergency laws

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