23 August 2021


SUBJECT: Parliament sitting.

ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: Sitting period is going ahead in spite of the current outbreak in the ACT and many will join via video link. Alicia Payne is Federal Labor Member for the ACT and is with us today. Alicia Payne, good morning to you. 


SHIRLEY: On a human level, you're juggling a family, you've also got work and other maybe technology issues. How is it going to work?

PAYNE: Yes, well, actually today, so yes, Parliament is going ahead in a very restricted form. And I just want to let people know in Canberra too, that every effort is being made to make Parliament as safe as possible. In the last sittings, we had very strict restrictions, and we will have even tighter ones this time. There are very few people who will actually be in the building. It's pretty much limited to our local representatives, such as myself and people who have been here since the last sittings, and people who had come and done two weeks of quarantine in order to be here for these sittings. So I know that some of my Labor colleagues have been in you know, full, full quarantine, like not leaving their apartment at all, in order to be here this week. And then yes, many will be participating remotely, which we actually started doing last year in some of the sittings last year. But this time, obviously, more people than ever will be doing it. And I actually think it's working, it's been working really well. So quite a positive innovation, that means that people can, who can't be here in person can, you know, represent their constituents in the Parliament and participate, to some extent, while not needing to travel and facing that health risk.

SHIRLEY: We'll get to some of the technical limitations, but maybe opportunities to run democracy at Parliament House in that restricted way you talked about. But you wear two hats in a way, you are a Federal representative in the Australian Parliament, you're a Canberra local too. How do you balance that concern for the COVID risk to Canberra because of people coming in, versus the need for the democracy, the rules, the motions to be put forward and then voted on, for instance?

PAYNE: Yeah, absolutely. So the, Labor has said, you know, we always want Parliament to continue where it is safe to do so, and that decision ultimately rests with the Government. And in this case, you know, Andrew Barr had made his view clear that it shouldn't happen and an agreement there has been reached. But as, it's because as I said, people aren't travelling in for this Parliament, it's not like a normal Parliament where you know, everyone's coming in from their electorate. The people who will be physically in the building are people who have either been, have been here since the last sittings, or have done a quarantine specifically for this, who were here before we went into lockdown. And, as I said, there are increased restrictions. So there's no staff, there are only essential staff and the same restrictions on, where they've been apply to those staff. There'll be a new, a new introduction this week, which is temperature testing at all of the entrances. And also the other thing is, like Parliament is a really, really, normally a really busy place with constant meetings and events going on. None of that is happening at the moment. So mainly I'll be sitting in my office by myself, my staff won't be there. And a lot of the meetings are on tele-presence or on the telephone anyway, even with others that are in the building. So, you know, for example, our caucus meeting, we do that as a dial-in so that everyone can participate, including those not in the building, but also to limit any gatherings in the building.

SHIRLEY: Based on previous experience, and the way this has been done in other restricted lockdown situations - albeit not here in the ACT - how manageable will it be to have those essential discussions and cover the breadth of policy that would be necessary?

PAYNE: Look, it's not ideal, but it does quite well. So for example, you know, Monday of Parliamentary sitting week is always about all the committee meetings and all those will happen today over teleconference and have those discussions, tomorrow we'll have caucus. And then what goes on in the House: the remote Parliament enables people to still make speeches on legislation and other debates, which is really good. So that happens and I must say the technical aspect has gone very well so far. You know, with people and in your intro there, you were talking about, you know the rowdiness, and how it's managed. People who are participating remotely, they have to go into their electorate office to do it. And there's a very strict rules about things like backgrounds, and, you know, it's meant to be the same as if you were sitting in the chamber, you've got to be dressed appropriately, you can't have other people in the background. You've got to be focused while you're there. You know, it's not about doing other work while you're sort of zoomed in, you know, it's like being in Parliament as much as possible.

SHIRLEY: Alicia Payne is our guest, Member for Canberra and Federal Labor MP from this region, obviously, talking about the resumption of Parliament this week, in even more restricted rules and circumstances than has been the case previously through COVID when there have been restricted fly-ins let's say, people actually present in Parliament House. Nice to have you along for company, it's seven minutes to eleven. And as you say, a lot of politicians are not actually returning to Parliament House at all. For those who do need to video link in but from afar, what measures have been established for that?

PAYNE: For the video link, they, so there's been a training, everyone has to participate in a training, in order to be able to do that. And as I said, they have to do it from their electorate office. And that, I think, is to do with security of connections and things like that. They can't actually vote via the video link. 

SHIRLEY: Right, that's what I was going to get to in terms of pairs and votes on motions and that sort of thing.

PAYNE: Yeah, so the there's been a cooperation on pairs, and that has been happening all through the pandemic. Another interesting point is that, that we started last year, is we can't actually have everyone in the chamber, even this sitting, there's a rule around the number of people. So for example, today, I won't be in the chamber, because I've been rostered off for today, because we can't- so when the bells ring and there is a vote, we can't actually have everyone in there anyway. So the pairing arrangements cover that off.

SHIRLEY: And Alicia Payne, what would be, what would be a point where you think it couldn't run? I mean, that must have been discussed within political circles where it might get to a stage, either because of technology, a COVID case within the Parliament, or some other issue which prevents a reasonable running of democracy. Is there, is there a point where that might happen?

PAYNE: Yes, well, those those discussions are happening, and the decision ultimately rests with the Government and the presiding officers around those issues. I think, so we've been grappling with these things since the beginning of the pandemic last year, and obviously Parliament was cancelled a few times early on, but it was important to keep that democracy running and so we found ways, such as remote Parliament, to work around that. I think that, so you do need some people there in person at this stage. We can't do it completely remotely. And I think the only reason it's been able to go ahead this week is because people were here who had been, who were already here. I don't think it would have gone ahead if we required people travelling in.

SHIRLEY: We'll see how it unfolds. It is uncharted territory in lots of ways, nevermind the juggle at home many politicians such as yourself have. All the best with it, and thanks for speaking with us.

PAYNE: Thanks very much Adam.

SHIRLEY: Alicia Payne is the Member for Canberra, a Federal Labor MP. And yes, it will be a unique way of running Federal Parliament but it will continue.