Victoria’s coronavirus crisis calls for more oversight and an end to Opposition infighting


April 22, 2020 18:01:13

When Victoria’s MPs head into Parliament on Thursday they will be making some big decisions, casting votes on a huge financial package needed to help the state combat the economic carnage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Treasurer Tim Pallas’s $24.5 billion recovery war chest is significant — it will add considerably to state debt.

Modelling shows that the unemployment rate will more than double and 270,000 Victorian jobs could be lost under a worst-case scenario.

Scrutiny must be applied to this fund.

There are calls far and wide for Parliament to sit more often, not less, and there are calls for more sitting dates to be set.

The Parliament must also run the ruler over a giant omnibus bill that covers everything from councils to WorkCover, and grants unprecedented powers to the justice system.

The Federal Parliament and other countries have set up oversight bodies dominated by non-government parties but Victoria is not doing the same.

Instead, the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, dominated by Labor, will be put in charge.

Known as “PAEC”, it’s the equivalent of Canberra’s Senate estimates, but for years it’s been overrun by petty political point-scoring and a platform for the government of the day to spruik its performance.

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It seems a little counterproductive that this body be given the job of crisis oversight.

Retired Supreme Court judge Stephen Charles QC, who helped set up the state’s anti-corruption watchdog, says now is the time for more — not less — oversight of government decision-making.

Mr Charles, who is a member of the Accountability Roundtable think tank, says the group isn’t opposed to the measures being taken by the Government, but greater scrutiny needs to be applied by Parliament.

“We are supportive of what Government is doing but we need oversight — we don’t distrust them, we just need to know what is going on,” he told the ABC.

“It’s at a difficult time when Government are being forced to act in a way that may turn out to be either wrong, or need amending, and oversight should not be dominated by Government personnel.”

He said Australia should follow other democracies, which are continuing to hold parliamentary sittings even in these tough times.

Internal bickering threatens Opposition’s focus

The challenge for the Opposition and crossbench in the Upper House is to work together to apply some level scrutiny.

But there is a major problem for the Opposition.

Rather than focusing on the greatest challenge in a generation, it continues to be bogged down by internal bickering — even at a time like this.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien’s nearly 18-month tenure has been the subject of internal criticism for some time.

Too many people think he is not doing enough, or scoring any goals against the Government — a tough ask against an experienced Premier brimming with confidence.

There have been very public displays from frontbencher Tim Smith projecting an angry front.

Over the weekend he took to social media to lambast the Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, describing some of his rationale for social restrictions as “bullshit.”

And then there were the bats in his leafy Kew electorate.

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Featuring some local party branch members, Smith managed to get a story up on Channel 9’s Sunday news about the pesky bats and the need to move them on because of coronavirus.

O’Brien hasn’t sought to rock the boat in this crisis, offering to work with the Government while questioning some of the budget decisions.

Smith’s behaviour over the weekend, and some less inflammatory comments from former leader Matthew Guy, have agitated some in the O’Brien camp — so much so that the leader promised to have a word to Smith.

Leaked story pours ‘fuel on the fire’

On Tuesday, a story appeared on the front page of The Age stating that O’Brien had tried to soothe tensions in the party by telling Smith and company to cool their jets on their criticism of the Chief Health Officer during a Shadow Cabinet meeting.

The problem is Matthew Guy is just a backbencher, so he wasn’t at the meeting, and other members of the Opposition frontbench said no such edict was made at Shadow Cabinet.

Throughout the party, MPs and staff were ropable that this story appeared.

The leaked story did nothing but “pour fuel on the fire”, one MP said.

Others went as far as to suggest this behaviour could end O’Brien’s leadership.

It is a dire time for the Victorian Liberals.

Changing horses during a crisis would shred even more credibility from the party that is still very much licking deep wounds from the Dan Andrews belting in 2018.

As a few wiser heads inside the party this week said “we aren’t necessarily at our lowest ebb, we can get worse”.

And given the state’s economy is in freefall, things will get harder for Labor, so there may just be opportunity to gain ground for the Opposition — that is, if the team can work together.

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First posted

April 22, 2020 17:41:58

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