Extraordinary times call for extraordinary parliamentary sitting

At the Kingston Hotel, a famous Sunday night Canberra watering hole for the nation's pollies, news of an impending pub ban ensured a group of Nationals MPs stayed until drinks were called.

Across town, a specially chartered RAAF jet landed in the dark at Fairbairn airbase carrying MPs from both sides of the aisle, all keeping their distance from each other on a two-hour flight south. Others drove solo for seven hours from Melbourne.

Prayers in the House of Representatives with MPs practising social distancing.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

At 10am on Monday, Speaker Tony Smith struck a sombre tone as 90 MPs – a touch over half the usual suspects – assembled in the House of Representatives to find the seating arrangements had changed.

"Please sit only in the seat or the space allocated to you with your name," he announced. "There are bottles of hand sanitiser at a number of locations within and around the chamber. You will also note that several of the doors to the chamber are open. This is to reduce the need for members to touch the door handles."

Where ministers usually squeeze onto the treasury benches, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had room to spare. If there weren't strict demands for social isolating, one might assume he'd forgotten his deodorant.

This was not Parliament nor politics as usual. They are, as many are at pains to point out, extraordinary times.

So much so that Labor senator Penny Wong issued a press release after waking feeling "unwell".

"Consistent with advice to all Australians and recognising that my parliamentary colleagues will return to their home states and communities, as a responsible precaution I will self-isolate, pending medical advice," she said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison opened the skeleton sitting of Federal Parliament to pass his economic response to the coronavirus.

He warned 2020 would be the toughest year in the lives of many Australians.

"Meeting this challenge is bigger than any Australian," Morrison told the chamber. "It's obviously bigger than politics, it is bigger than any of us who are in this chamber – Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, minister, shadow minister, members of parliament – bigger than all of us."

Morrison evoked the spirit of survival that aided the nation through the Great Depression and the Second World War.

"I know, we all know, that Australians are very concerned at this difficult time. It is the understandable fear of the unknown, and there is much that is not known about the coronavirus, but we must not let that fear overtake us," he said.

He offered thanks to Labor leader Anthony Albanese, in a nod that only a united Parliament can ensure the nation's best efforts.

Albanese responded that it was time to "spread kindness and humanity" and not the coronavirus.

"Our country, our world has changed but this will not last forever," he said. "Things will be different after this. I am an optimist. I have faith in the people of Australia."

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