Morrison shuts down parliament, hands nation to corporations

March 30, 2020
Image: RatbagMedia

According to the federal Department of Health, as of 6am on March 29, there were 3809 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 14 people had so far died. However, the true extent of coronavirus cases — and what is actually going on — remains uncertain.

On March 23, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison continued to tell parents that sending kids to school was no problem, he closed down federal parliament — ostensibly as a health measure. This means that, until August, the executive will govern with no oversight from the rest of parliament.

With all non-Coalition federal politicians locked down at home, Morrison went on to launch the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) to oversee the huge war-time effort involved in running the country during a crisis.

It should come as no surprise that this new body established to restructure and coordinate the economy throughout the pandemic — and into the radically changed post-COVID world we are yet to experience — has a heavy corporate representation.

Indeed, in yet another display of unabashed cronyism, Morrison has seen fit to hand over the reins to a group of executives and Coalition insiders. The national epidemic has become an opportunity for him to make a huge power grab.

Australia Pty Ltd

Morrison explained during a March 25 media conference that the NCCC is charged with “solving problems”, specifically “private-to-private and public-to-private” ones, which includes the redistribution of manufacturing potential and workforces.

“Problems that require the private sector working together with the private sector, CEOs, to talk to CEOs and to be engaged with by CEOs to ensure that the private to private effort is there solving problems in the national interest and it’s being mobilised,” the captain articulated.

It all sounds very much like a neoliberal wet dream.

In keeping with Liberal protocol, Morrison appointed mining industry heavyweight and former Fortescue Metals Group chief executive Nev Power to chair the committee. Power has had a decades-long career in the mining sector and used to manage Oaky Creek coal mine for Mount Isa Mines in the mid-1990s.

The NCCC deputy chair is former Telstra chairperson David Thodey. Other members include ANZ board member Jane Halton, ex-head of Toll Holdings Paul Little and Reserve Bank board member Catherine Tanner.

If these do not sound like the people who will have the best interests of an estimated 1 million now vulnerable Australians who have just lost their jobs at heart, the government has seen fit to throw former Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Greg Combet into the mix.

The final members of the body are the prime minister’s long-term “butler” Phil Gaetjens, who recently absolved Bridget McKenzie in the sports rorts fiasco, and home affairs minister Peter Dutton's deputy Michael Pezzullo, who has been itching to turn the nation’s international spying agency — the Australian Signals Directorate — onto its own citizens.

It can be assumed that not only will the NCCC be advising government, it will also be permitted to make unilateral decisions about how the economy operates while all other elected members have been sent home. Of course, any changes made now will have carry-on effects after the crisis ends.

Liberal democracy

With federal parliament shut down, key decisions on how to run the country in the pandemic are being handled by the National Cabinet: the PM plus state premiers and Territory chief ministers. It has been progressively imposing pandemic restrictions on citizens’ movements and commercial enterprises.

The federal government’s co-conspirator in its authoritarian rumblings is, unsurprisingly, the Gladys Berejiklian government, which closed down New South Wales parliament on March 24, straight after it had increased the COVID-19 powers of that state’s police force.

NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers: “We’ve effectively handed legislative powers to the executive for the next 6 to 12 months”. The Green’s justice spokesperson has since established a NSW parliamentary oversight body to keep an eye on it during this period.

Over recent weeks, NSW health minister Brad Hazzard has issued several public health orders regarding social distancing rules and isolation requirements, which NSW police officers are now busy enforcing via the threat of steep fines.

While all the states and territories are enlisting their law enforcement bodies to police these rules, the PM announced the big clincher on March 27, when he invoked relatively recently-created laws to send in the military to assist the various jurisdictions with enforcing COVID-19 measures.

Business as usual

The fact the Morrison government is handing over some governing powers to corporate entities is not really a shock. It is well known that many within the Canberra bubble are former employees of the mining industry, while other serving members will go on to work in the sector.

The COVID-19 crisis is not the first catastrophe the country has faced of late. The recent climate-related bushfires, that burnt down a globally unprecedented 20% of mainland forest, only came to a months-long end in mid-February.

Despite public outrage over its lack of any attempt to reduce the rising detrimental impact of a changing climate, the government appointed Liberal National Party of Queensland Keith Pitt as its new resources minister while the fires were still going. He promptly announced more fossil fuel investment would be needed to lift our “standard of living”.

The expansion of the fossil fuel sector continues apace during COVID-19. Frontline Action on Coal reported on March 22 that Adani's Carmichael mine site in Central Queensland was still “operating at full-swing”. Not to be left out, Labor premier Daniel Andrews lifted Victoria’s ban on onshore gas exploration.

Now, the Morrison government is haphazardly coordinating a pandemic response in a nation that has long lost faith in it, to the point that many people have been ignoring the recommended prevention measures because they do not trust anything it says.

Eroding rights

Successive federal governments have been passing anti-terrorism laws over the past two decades. According to a count by the University of New South Wales Law School, there have been 85 counter-terrorism bills enacted at the federal level since the 9/11 terror attacks.

These laws have not only supposedly been restricting the ability of terrorists to act, they have also been incrementally whittling away at the rights of all Australians.

As this has been happening, commentators have remarked that the concern is not simply that these laws can be used on more vulnerable citizens by the government of the day, but that a more extreme force could take control and turn these draconian powers on to everyone.

Something to contemplate while we are all in lockdown.

[Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer for Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]

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