For some MPs, COVID-19 has meant less travel — and perhaps a shift to a more family-friendly parliament
On the final day of Parliament for 2020, Labor’s Warren Snowdon announced his plan to “roll the swag” after 31 years representing the sprawling seat of Lingiari in the Northern Territory.
Mr Snowdon calculated that, over three decades, he had spent two full years of his life on domestic flights, many of them getting to and from Canberra.
Mr Snowdon may be an extreme example, but there are plenty of other MPs from the Top End, Western Australia and Far North Queensland who also understand the tyranny of distance when it comes to commuting to parliament.
Even those traveling shorter distances can struggle with spending 19-20 weeks away from home each year, especially when young families are involved.
In recent years, Labor’s Kate Ellis and Tim Hammond, along with the Liberal Party’s Kelly O’Dwyer, all cited needing to spend more time with their kids in their decisions to quit politics in the prime of their lives.
Mr Hammond, who’s since returned to the law, hasn’t looked back.
“The transaction time was the killer,” he says. He would put the kids to bed on a Sunday night in Perth, then fly through the night to Canberra to make it to parliament by 8:00am Monday.
The alternative was missing Sundays with the family, along with the rest of the week. This level of sacrifice is presumably enough to scare off plenty of other talented people from even considering a run for parliament.
So, could the COVID-induced shift to virtual parliamentary attendance change all that? Could “zooming” from the electorate office become a permanent fixture that finally makes parliament more family friendly?
It’s an inevitable debate echoing the one playing out in many workplaces that have been through the work-from-home revolution of 2020. And much like in many workplaces, views amongst MPs are mixed.
It’s worth stating the obvious at this point: few voters will have any sympathy for MPs spending so much time away from home. No one is forcing them to do it and they are very well looked after at every point along their journey. Fly-in-fly-out mine workers do it much tougher.
Nonetheless, this is a question of who we want representing us in the nation’s parliament. Do we only want those who are willing and able to spend nearly half the year away from their families?
Or do we want to attract a true representation of society by making the place a little more accommodating for the many women and indeed men who simply won’t cop that degree of separation?
Then there’s the question of the “culture” of parliament, which has been discussed at length lately. Do we want our politicians spending as much time as they do in the “boarding house” environment of a Canberra sitting week?
Or do we want them spending more of that time attached to the grassroots of their electorates?
The pros and cons of zooming in to Parliament
Labor MP Lisa Chesters gave birth to her first baby, Daisy, in December 2019, just before the pandemic hit. She managed to attend Canberra sittings last year with Daisy in tow, but with a second bub due in April, Ms Chesters would welcome the option of virtual attendance remaining as a “fallback”.
“If MPs knew it was an option and they knew they had to be at home to care for young children or older children or other family,” she says, the ability to zoom in from the electorate office “would make parliament more attractive for a more diverse group of people.
“It would relieve that stress. It’s disappointing our parliament is behind what a lot of corporate Australia has already adapted to. We should be at the forefront.”
Tim Hammond watched the experiment in virtual parliamentary attendance with some reflective interest, too.
While reluctant to nominate exactly what the rules should be, he reckons “if we were able to land a Westminster system with the right mix of virtual and real attendance, it would have made a difference for me”. In other words, he might have stayed.
On the other side of the debate are those who staunchly defend the need for parliament to meet face-to-face. They put forward three main arguments.
The first is an obvious point about security. For all the protections put in place around virtual attendance, there was always some level of risk of hacking or manipulation and therefore restrictions on the level of participation. MPs who zoomed in were able to take part in Question Time and speak on legislation, but they weren’t allowed to move amendments or vote in divisions.
The second point goes to preventing any further deterioration in the standard of political debate. Social media can be such a brutal place, in part because those abusing each other have never met.
There is a legitimate fear that polarisation would only grow if political opponents rarely came into physical contact. The more time people spend together, the more they can understand where the other is coming from. Relationships formed across the aisle by MPs and Senators who work together on parliamentary committees are a good example of this.
The final reason for bringing everyone together is a more self-serving one for the major parties: enforcing discipline. Left to their own devices in their electorates, MPs are more likely to break ranks, go rogue and cause trouble.
Party leaders much prefer unity and it’s much easier to herd the cats when they’re all in the same building.
A new way of doing things for committees
Of course, no one is suggesting an end to parliament meeting in Canberra altogether. This is a question of whether all MPs need to be there for every sitting week or whether more flexibility should be allowed.
It’s about finding the happy medium, just as corporate CEOs are now trying to do when it comes to the acceptable level of work-from-home for their own staff.
When it comes to parliament, however, don’t expect any radical change. MPs with young kids will still be required to turn up in Canberra, but there is likely to be some post-pandemic capacity for remote attendance for mums and dads of newborns or those undergoing cancer treatment, for example.
The bigger change will be in the operation of committees — the often unseen but vital work of parliament that continues year-round, keeping a check on the performance of government departments and agencies, gathering evidence on proposed legislation and investigating issues referred for inquiry.
Committees collectively hold hundreds of hearings each year. It’s the main part of the job particularly for senators, who spend roughly four times as long in committees each year as they do in the Senate chamber.
Usually, this committee work involves travelling to Canberra or other parts of the country for meetings in person. Members have long been able to phone in, but this was considered more an exception than a norm.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, however, parliamentary committees were the first to switch to video hook-ups for both members and witnesses. Apart from the occasional camera fail or interruption from a wayward toddler, these virtual committee hearings worked incredibly well.
Committees are still expected to meet in Canberra where possible and travel to remote communities to gain valuable “on the ground” evidence and experience, but there will be fewer trips to Sydney and Melbourne for run-of-the-mill hearings when remote attendance works just fine.
Chair of the House Economics Committee, Tim Wilson, expects his committee members will still turn up for big events, like questioning the Reserve Bank Governor. Other hearings are likely to be more accommodating of virtual attendance.
Speaker Tony Smith agrees. “I expect that after COVID-19, some committees will continue to use those facilities to conduct hearings to a much greater extent than before the pandemic,” he says.
It’s perhaps not quite the family-friendly post-pandemic parliament some had hoped for, but less travel for committee hearings is a start.
Ms Chesters, who would prefer more flexibility than this, would at least welcome some common sense on committees.
“You could do more constituent meetings rather than sitting in an airport trying to get somewhere for a hearing,” she says.
There might be an upside for taxpayers, too. After all, they’re the ones footing the bill for all this travel.
David Speers is the host of Insiders.