We live in a time of rapid escalation. Infection. Horror. Dawning awareness of how quickly the earth can move under our feet.
But we are also learning at a furious pace; all sorts of things.
How incredibly filthy our hands have been this whole time; that’s more or less universal.
Awareness of how frustrating it is to apply for unemployment benefits is also spreading fast.
“My bad,” said Government Services Minister Stuart Robert on Tuesday, explaining he hadn’t quite registered in advance how busy Centrelink’s website might immediately become when the economy was placed under sedation at the weekend (the site has been crashing all week, prompting a rethink of the decision to run it off Mr Robert’s historically overworked home internet server. Jokes.)
Video: Queues form outside Centrelink offices for the second day.
Workers lucky enough still to have a job and be able to work from home have found themselves on an exponential learning curve, picking up everything from alarming new insights into their workmates’ home decor to top-range proficiency in completing a crucial teleconference while a 10-year-old burps the alphabet at the other end of the kitchen table.
How hard is it to be a teacher? Lots of people are finding out the answer to that one pretty fast.
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Whole organisations are learning at the speed of light, and despite the desperate fear and horror that drives this innovation, the feats of ingenuity on display send exhilarating pulses of light out to other humans in lockdown.
The Rotterdam Philharmonic playing the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth together from their disparate loungerooms.
A “Couch Choir” of 1,000 humans singing Close To You together from 1,000 locations.
Large employers have found ways of moving their workforces online. The Sydney Morning Herald, for the first time, produced a newspaper from an empty office.
As a journalist myself, I am permitted to observe that there is no professional grouping more grumpily resistant to technological change or more averse to computer training of any kind.
And so I ask: if vast chunks of the Australian workforce can evolve and rapidly learn new ways of doing our jobs, why the hell can’t our federal Parliament?
If we are obliged to view each other’s nose hairs and download Zoom, why can’t they?
Morrison’s socialist acid dream
The House of Representatives rose on Monday night at 11:11pm after a sombre day legislating a costly rescue program that would have seemed like a socialist acid dream to Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg a couple of months back.
MPs are not scheduled now to sit again for nearly five months. The Budget’s been postponed, and the Parliament’s great chambers will sit quiet until August 11.
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The general uncontroversiality of the proposition that we can simply do without our principal decision-making body for five months during the biggest disaster most of us will ever see is informative in itself.
In fact, it’s kind of frightening that the closure of pubs is getting more comment than the shutdown of the Parliament.
Labor and the Greens opposed the new schedule as the shadows lengthened on Monday.
“Of all the decisions that have been made procedurally, this is the only one where we have disagreement,” said the manager of Opposition business, Tony Burke.
“Let’s not forget, in terms of legislation, some of what we dealt with in legislation today was only announced and determined by the Australian Government yesterday. It is unthinkable that we will make it through to 11 August without the nation needing us to convene.”
“If further urgent decisions need to be made then surely we should be able to work out how to make them if Parliament has to be cancelled,” added Greens leader Adam Bandt.
“But the starting point in an emergency is to have more democracy, not less. The presumption that simply because there is a crisis we should cancel Parliament is a worrying one.”
Video: Scott Morrison foreshadows stronger social distancing measures.
Baby steps to a new regime
The House of Representatives made a number of concessions to COVID-19 on Monday.
One was cutting the numbers of MPs present. Another was having MPs fetch their own glasses of water (baby steps).
Another was changing the way they voted to minimise the number of times MPs trooped back and forth.
There was no overt discussion of moving to a virtual Parliament, and it’s understood this is not an option under active discussion.
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But the House did agree on another variation of standing order, providing that: “the House may meet in a manner and form not otherwise provided in the standing orders with the agreement of the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business, with the manner in which Members may be present (including for the purposes of achieving a quorum) to be determined by the Speaker”.
If this country is in lockdown for many months, the prospect of Zooming the House of Representatives without taking the risk of shipping 151 MPs and their staff around the continent becomes — you’d think — a decreasingly silly proposition.
For representatives to speak from the heart of their suffering communities — rather than the hermetically sealed suites of Parliament House where whips and factional heavies can easily find them — might actually lead to a different kind of advocacy.
Certainly, adopting a model for a virtual Parliament long term would address some of the most stubborn barriers that currently keep women out of the joint.
This crisis is changing our country already. Our Parliament should lead, not follow.
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