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Parliament In A Time Of Virus

Is Parliament A ‘Non-Essential Service’?

The emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia saw an unprecedented expansion of the authority of the executive at the expense of the Parliament. In my article in pdfAustralasian Parliamentary Review (vol 32, no 2) I review the executive’s use of emergency powers and the innovation of a national Cabinet to manage the crisis response, while Parliament was reduced to an unrepresentative “rump” and then adjourned for twenty weeks. I argue that this eliminated or substantially compromised Parliament’s ability to perform its principal functions of representation, executive legitimisation, authorisation, deliberation and accountability.

In the event, Parliament was recalled earlier than planned, albeit on a limited and truncated basis, and a Senate Select Committee was established to provide scrutiny of the executive’s pandemic response. Yet the overall crisis response demonstrated a growing capacity and willingness of the executive to govern without parliament, and an acquiescent Parliament unable to define a more assertive role for itself. The COVID-19 response surrendered key features of Australia’s system of parliamentary democracy, posing troubling questions for the Australian system of representative democracy. In the article I propose some measures to revive a role for parliament in time of crisis.


Stephen Mills

I am honorary senior lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. My primary research interest is election campaign management and political parties. I served as speechwriter to Prime Minister Hon RJL Hawke (1986-91), and before that I was a journalist and editor for Fairfax newspapers 'The Age', 'Australian Financial Review' and 'Sydney Morning Herald'. I have more than 10 years experience in corporate affairs and issues management in the Australian financial services sector. I have a PhD from the University of Sydney (2013) and a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School (1985). My book The New Machine Men (1986) dealt with the first applications of public opinion polling and TV advertising in Australian elections.

Browse this site to find my earlier publications dealing with Australian election campaigns and political parties. I'm also interested in market research, campaign strategy, and public sector leadership.  I'd be happy to get your comments and feedback about anything on this site, by email at

Stephen Mills