Coronavirus Response - Early Budget and Consideration of Rescheduled Parliamentary Sittings Required

9 March 2020

South Australian Senator Rex Patrick today called on the Morrison Government to bring forward the Federal Budget to mid-April and be prepared to reschedule parliamentary sittings ahead of a likely mid-year peak of COVID-19 virus spread in Australia.  

"It is clear that the coronavirus will have a very considerable impact on the Australian economy; an inevitable consequence of a global economic downturn, likely disruptions of supply chains, and direct effects in Australia," Senator Patrick said.  

"The dramatic plunge in stock markets and current instances of panic buying already indicate widespread uncertainty and anxiety."

"Prime Minister Scott Morrison cannot be too proactive in efforts to reduce what are likely to be major economic and social impacts. Last Friday’s announcement concerning health cost sharing with the states was a welcome step and further stimulus measures are expected to be announced this week." 

"However, in the prevailing circumstances the Government should bring forward the presentation of the Federal budget to mid-April, a month earlier than currently scheduled."  

"This would undoubtedly pose a significant challenge for Federal Ministers and the Australian Public Service. However, the early presentation of a full Budget with strong support for business and households, and for those groups most likely to feel the brunt of an economic downturn, would undoubtedly help build confidence."

"The need for an early budget is strengthened by the likely impact of the COVID-19 virus on Parliamentary sittings currently scheduled for the middle of the year."

"While the Federal Government has been reluctant to release projections about the spread of the virus in Australia, Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan last week revealed current modelling “indicates that potentially, in late April or May, there may be greater spread of the illness here in Australia … The peak would then hit us in potentially August, which is obviously not a great month because our coldest months with the highest level of flu."

"At present the Australian Parliament is scheduled to meet for only one more week in March, and then will not sit again until the currently scheduled presentation of the Budget on 12 May. In May and June the House of Representatives will sit for five weeks and the Senate will sit for three weeks with two weeks of Senate Estimates Committee hearings as well. Parliament will then resume sitting for two weeks in August and another two weeks in September."

"When Parliament is sitting between four and five thousand people work in Parliament House with many hundreds of other people – public servants, lobbyists and other members of the public – visiting during Budget week and the Estimates hearings. MPs, their staff and many visitors travel from all over the country to Canberra and then return home when Parliament is no longer sitting."

"This is precisely the sort of mass gathering and travel patterns that public health authorities will seek to prevent as the spread of the coronavirus accelerates and peaks during the middle of the year. Although it may be possible to arrange for Parliament to meet with a minimum of staff and visitors, consideration will obviously need to be give to rescheduling planned sittings."

"No one would want the Parliament to serve as a giant petri dish," Senator Patrick said. "Most politicians are out and about in their communities when Parliament is not sitting. A mass gathering like Federal Parliament and associated travel patterns will increase the chance of politicians and their staff spreading the virus in their communities. It would be best to be proactive to avoid this risk."

"I will be writing to the President of the Senate, Senator Scott Ryan, to raise with him the potential public health issues associated with currently scheduled Parliamentary sittings through May to at least September."

"I would urge the Morrison Government to move quickly to bring forward urgent Parliamentary business in the remaining sitting week in March and to be prepared to schedule additional sittings in April with a view to presenting an early Budget before the likely acceleration of the COVID-19 epidemic during the winter months."

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