More than half of New South Wales public sector employees – police, teachers and health workers – will require proof of vaccination to work in NSW.
But their boss, Gladys Berejiklian, has steadfastly refused to embrace mandatory vaccination in her own workplace: NSW parliament.
Instead, parliament has solved problems posed by Covid by not functioning at all.
The veritable old lady of Macquarie Street is a ghost ship – and has not sat since the agriculture minister, Adam Marshall, tested positive for Covid-19 on 23 June. Staff are working from home, and just a skeleton staff remains in the building.
Democracy in NSW during this Delta outbreak has been put on ice. There has been no question time for nearly three months, let alone bills passed.
A few parliamentary committee meetings have been convened on Zoom and there were plans by the legislative council to sit last week, but the government chose not to send any members, making the sitting impossible.
By contrast, Victorian parliament has managed some sittings, while the federal parliament has continued, albeit with controversies over whether the restrictions on crossing state borders have been equally applied to politicians and the prime minister.
Berejiklian said this week that she was hoping the parliament would return on 12 October, when the next sittings of both chambers were due.
Officials and MPs are working furiously on a Covid-safe plan. Rapid antigen testing has been introduced this week for anyone who needs to enter the building, along with the usual precautions of QR codes and temperature checks.
But it appears that mandatory vaccination is a bridge too far for politicians, despite what they preach – and the risk of parliament being a super-spreader event.
The incident involving Marshall in June highlighted that contact-tracing in a workplace like parliament is a nightmare due to the multiple interactions within the building.
Asked about mandatory vaccination for MPs, staff and hangers-on, like journalists and lobbyists, Berejiklian ran a mile.
“I wouldn’t want to be in the room with lots of people who aren’t vaccinated,” she said, when asked whether she would make vaccines mandatory for workers in parliament house. “And I certainly hope that all of our colleagues are vaccinated. That’s the message we’ve been sending the community.”
But not all are on board with that message.
Tanya Davies, a conservative Liberal, holds the view the requirement for mandatory vaccination as has been imposed on tradies in NSW in order to work is “discriminatory”. She has announced her intention to launch a private member’s bill to ban companies from mandating jabs for employees.
The Victorian parliament has already had to cope with pandemic conditions, installing perspex screens in the chambers to ensure social distancing. It has facilities for remote attendance, though the constitution still probably requires a quorum of 20 members.
Its plan also does not mandate vaccination, and the deputy clerk, Robert McDonald, said there may be constitutional problems with requiring MPs to be vaccinated because such a move could impede their right to act as members of parliament.
McDonald said it might be possible for the parliament itself to pass a law or motion requiring vaccination, but as MPs are not employed, it was not open to the premier to impose such a rule.
The employment arrangements in parliaments are complex, with ministers’ staff generally employed by the premier’s department or the finance department, and electorate and other staff employed by the presiding officers in most cases.
Nonetheless, it is not a good look for premiers to be demanding via health orders that certain segments of the public sector be vaccinated, while not practicing what they preach.