The Legislative Council sat on Tuesday 24 March in order to urgently consider two bills regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and a bill to provide relief for people affected by the recent bushfires in NSW.

This was an extraordinary sitting day with some members not attending to avoid there being a large gathering in the Chamber. The members who were present adhered to social distancing measures, with some even sitting in the public gallery.

Treasury Legislation Amendment (COVID-19) Bill 2020

This was the first of two bills dealt with by the Parliament concerning the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill was introduced in the Assembly earlier in the day by the Treasurer and passed that House following a brief debate.

The bill amends payroll tax legislation to deliver financial assistance to small businesses and amends long service leave legislation to free up long service leave provisions allowing it to be accessed before it would otherwise become available.

In the spirit of bipartisanship the bill passed the chamber without amendment. However a number of members stated that the bill does not go far enough to financially support the people of New South Wales during this very difficult time.

COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020

The second bill considered by the Parliament regarding the COVID-19 pandemic sought to introduce a range of emergency measures to prepare New South Wales services and institutions for the impacts of COVID-19. The bill was introduced in the Assembly earlier in the day by the Attorney General and passed that House following a brief debate.

The bill makes amendments to a number of statutes, including in relation to:

  • the operation of criminal trials
  • the possible release of certain inmates early on parole in response to COVID-19
  • the option to postpone local government elections, scheduled for September 2020
  • police powers to arrest a person if suspected of contravening a public health order
  • alternative arrangements for signing and witnessing documents
  • the operation of supermarkets on Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Anzac Day in 2020.

While there were some misgivings regarding the content of the legislation, members offered their bipartisan support. For example, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Searle stated:

At this time of great difficulty for our State and its people, we on this side of the House made a commitment to support the actions taken by the Government to address the COVID-19 pandemic and not to delay or obstruct the passage of any measure thought necessary in that effort.

However, some members noted they were uncomfortable with provisions in the bill that provide extraordinary power to the Executive; albeit for a limited time.

During the committee stage, 15 amendments were moved by the Government, The Greens and One Nation Party, with eight amendments agreed to (five Government and three Greens).

The Government successfully moved amendments regarding the release of inmates on parole in order to include restrictions on the release of sexual offenders and serious offenders.

The Greens were successful with their amendment to provide the Government with the regulation making power to protect commercial and residential renters from being evicted if they fall on hard times during this crisis.

The bill passed the House and the amendments were subsequently agreed to by the Assembly.

Better Regulation and Customer Service Legislation Amendment (Bushfire Relief) Bill 2020

The Legislative Council also passed a bill to provide fee relief for people affected by the recent bushfires in New South Wales and for Service NSW to take a leading role in this process.

Key points:

  • makes the process of waiving fees simpler for various government agencies through consistent processes operated by Service NSW
  • provides a consistent power to waive, reduce, refund or postpone fees
  • provides for replacement of important business documents free of charge
  • allows, by regulation, Service NSW to set up new functions, programs and services that support customers.

While the bill passed the House without amendment, the Opposition noted the following two concerns and called on the Auditor-General in 12 to 18 months to examine and report to Parliament on the manner in which decisions to provide relief from fees has been exercised:

  1. That the bill provides for retrospective validation of decisions made since 18 July 2019.
  2. That the bill confers broad discretionary powers for Ministers and officials to waive, reduce and postpone requirements to pay fees and there is no obligation to make these decisions public.

Important procedural motions

Following the passing of the three bills, the House considered a range of procedural motions to ensure the smooth running of various parliamentary processes during the intervening period until the House next sits.

A number of these processes will be discussed in more detail in future blog posts over the coming months as these important measures affect the operation of committees, the independent legal arbiter process and the recall of the House.

Adjournment until Tuesday 15 September 2020

The House passed a special adjournment motion to override the agreed to parliamentary sitting calendar so that the House would officially meet next on Tuesday 15 September 2020.

However, under a longstanding provision, the House can be recalled before September at the request of an absolute majority of members (at least 22 of the 42 members).

What now?

Although the House is not sitting, the Legislative Council will continue its important role in scrutinising the Executive government:

  • members can submit written questions to government ministers, with answers due within 21 days
  • orders for the production of government papers are due to be received
  • many of our committees have the power to ‘self-refer’ inquiries, without the agreement of the House
  • work continues on many committees inquiries (although some committees have changed their schedules – visit inquiry pages for more info).

In fact, as one of the final items of business, the House agreed to establish a select committee to examine the impact of technological change on the future of work and workers. The inquiry will focus on a range of matters including earnings, job security, employment status and working patterns – all very relevant as we, like many other workplaces, come to grips with the need to work remotely.

Stay tuned for future updates and procedural posts.

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