Legislative Council

GOVERNMENT BILL: Labor's Bill to Erode Democracy in the SA Parliament fails in the Upper House

July 5th, 2016

On the 5th of July 2016, Mark spoke to the Government's Constitution (Deadlocks) Amendment Bill, which proposes to replace the existing deadlock provisions with a new system that is modelled on the federal deadlock system and involves double dissolution elections and joint sittings to resolve persistent disagreements between the two houses of Parliament.

At the conclusion of Mark's second reading speech, this Bill was brought to a vote. As the Bill was opposed by the majority of the Members of the Legislative Council, it failed to pass.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Given all the angst and aggression that we have had over the last several weeks with the federal election campaign, I have decided today to be as agreeable as I can. I am going to agree with the Hon. Rob Lucas, I am going to agree with the Hon. Kelly Vincent, the Hon. Dennis Hood, and I am also going to agree with the Hon. Stephen Wade. I thank him for his comprehensive defence of bicameral parliament and his defence of the South Australian Legislative Council. I thank him for walking us through the history so that we have some understanding of why we have the system we have and what we would lose if we were to depart from it.

The Greens will be opposing this bill at the second reading, along with other members. I note the comments of the Hon. Rob Lucas. We do not often go to the same barbecues, but it sounds like we might have similar conversations. Like the honourable member, in my brief 10 years in this place I have never had a constituent who has come to me and said, 'You know what, Mark? The problem with our state is the deadlock provisions that apply between the houses.' It is not something that occupies the minds of anyone other than those diehards in the Labor Party who are determined to get rid of the upper house. If they cannot get rid of it, then they want to reform it to a position of irrelevancy. This is not a pressing issue for the public.

When I talk to people in the community, and probably the most recent conversations I have had with people who I do not know have in been doorknocking for the election, and one of the most common themes that comes out, and a number of members have raised this, is that most Australians, even if they are not fully apprised of how our system works, understand that you have checks and balances. They understand the importance of having an upper house of parliament that can provide some scrutiny for the lower house, and that is why, as other members have said, we have seen people voting differently in the different houses.
I am yet to have anyone come to me and say that the secret of a prosperous society is an effective dictatorship. Whilst I am not on personal terms with John Howard (former prime minister), I think that in a quiet reflective moment he might even be encouraged to agree that, in that period when he controlled both houses of parliament, probably were the seeds of his downfall. I may be doing him an injustice but certainly the commentators have reflected on that, that once you have that control, and you do not have the checks and balances, then things can go awry.

The other observation I would make is that one of the things we do in the Legislative Council is that we often save the government from itself. I can remember a number of bills where members have found unintended consequences that have resulted, we have found mistakes and errors, and we have used our authority here to correct those. I think that we have made a lot of legislation better as a result of the scrutiny that we have given it. Of course, sometimes people might say that we have made it worse as well, but on the whole I think the upper house has made legislation better.

I am going to conclude with three bits of advice to the government. If the object of the exercise is better legislation then here are three simple ways in which the government could achieve that. The first thing is that the government could consult better before introducing legislation. It is not just a question of consulting with members of parliament, but it is also stakeholders. I have used the word 'consult' because, as most of us would know, we do not receive invitations to consult with the government on legislation, we receive briefings about what the government has already decided to do. So, that is the first step: you want better legislation, consult better with stakeholders and members of parliament.

The second thing I think the government should do, and I know the opposition have put their minds to this but I think the government should as well, and that is to reform the parliamentary committee system. I think we could do well with a scrutiny of bills committee, a committee that has rotating membership, depending on the subject matter of the bill, and we, as members of parliament, should have the ability to directly interrogate experts and stakeholders as part of the legislative process.

I think that degree of scrutiny would be far preferable to the situation we have here where a small number of ministers represent ministers in another place. The ministers here are not familiar with the portfolios, they do their best, I guess, but that is why they have to have advisors sitting next to them whispering in their ear. It would be a far better a system if we could, in this chamber, interact directly with the ministers, maybe through a scrutiny of bills committee process. That is the second suggestion.

The third suggestion, and this has been raised by other speakers, is we do have a dispute resolution mechanism. It has not been used very often. I do note that in the last couple of days we have seen some so-called deadlock conferences or conferences of managers. That is a process that I think, whilst it is a little unwieldy in some ways, could be reformed and could be then used more. I think in my 10 years I have been part of one conference of managers. Then attorney-general, Michael Atkinson, did not have his heart in it, and basically I think we had one meeting for a few minutes and then the process was abandoned and it went nowhere. I think we should be using processes like that more. The government might be surprised, they might find that, with genuine debate and dialogue, sometimes these deadlocks can be broken.

So, with those words the Greens are certainly interested in reforms that improve the quality of legislation but we are not interested in reforms that gut the democracy of the South Australian parliament, and we are not interested in reforms that make the upper house of parliament an irrelevant rubber stamp without the ability to change legislation, so we will be joining, in an agreeable way, our colleagues on the crossbenches and in the opposition to howl this bill down at the second reading stage.

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