Under the special adjournment motion moved in March, the Legislative Council was due to next meet in September. However, at the request of the Government and having consulted with the leaders of all other parties in the Council, the President recalled the House to sit on Tuesday 12 May in order to consider emergency measure bills concerning COVID-19.
There had been much speculation as to whether the Legislative Council would sit for one or two days this week. On Tuesday it was decided there would be two sitting days so that members could have time to debate both government and non-government business. This allowed the House to effectively perform its important scrutiny function, including passing the COVID-19 legislation.
A COVID-19 sitting
Members have adapted to the ‘new normal’ in order for the House to continue meeting. Members adhered to social distancing measures, with some even sitting in the public gallery to maintain safe distances. Stickers were discreetly placed along the benches to indicate where members may sit. Hand sanitiser was readily available and members were asked by the Chair to use the sanitiser before filling out division sheets.
Conduct of Business
To start proceedings, Minister Tudehope moved a conduct of business motion to establish the items the House would consider over the two sitting days. In a departure from usual practice, the House decided that Question Time would only take place on Tuesday without government questions, with no time allocated for Questions on Wednesday.
Following Question Time on Tuesday, the President announced the receipt of three bills from the Legislative Assembly to implement a raft of emergency measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bills were considered immediately and were dealt with together as ‘cognate bills’.
The bills were generally supported by members. However, many amendments were proposed, with a total of 70 amendments moved and 18 agreed to. The majority of amendments were considered on Tuesday night, leading to the House adjourning at midnight. The bills passed the Council on Wednesday afternoon and were returned to the Legislative Assembly with that House subsequently agreeing to the amendments. The bills were assented to by the Governor on Thursday.
The bill reflects its title by making a range of miscellaneous amendments to 34 separate Acts, including important amendments:
- to expand earlier temporary measures to allow tenants who are in financial hardship due to COVID-19 to apply to end a fixed-term rental agreement
- to allow for accrued long service leave to be taken over multiple periods of not less than one day during a prescribed period and to permit the cashing out and taking of annual leave for employees in the local government sector at half pay or double pay
- to provide the State Parole Authority with the power to make parole orders for offenders sentenced to three years imprisonment or less with a non-parole period
- to reconstitute the Energy Savings Scheme by creating a regulation-making power to establish schemes that encourage the consumption, contracting or supply of energy in particular ways
- to extend the dates upon which consents for development would otherwise have lapsed
Members had a number of concerns with the bill and this was reflected in the 50 amendments moved during committee of the whole, 16 of which were agreed to. Of particular note are successful amendments which:
- inserted a schedule codifying workers compensation rights for essential workers such as health care works, police officers and teachers who contract COVID-19 while engaged in their work (Greens)
- inserted a clause to provide financial assistance through the Property Services Compensation Fund to residential landlords and tenants who are suffering hardships (Labor)
- removed provisions which exempt the Valuer-General from ascertaining land values for the 1 July 2020 rating year (One Nation)
- removed provisions that would preclude local governments from carrying out building works in excess of $1 million until May 2022 and capping councils’ general income until June 2021 (Greens)
- inserted a clause to protect the annual holiday entitlements of workers who have been stood down for a prescribed period (Labor).
The bill makes a number of amendments to three Acts and associated regulations administered by the Treasurer. The bill:
- provides for the deferral of the deadline for handing down the 2020-2021 budget from June until no later than 31 December 2020 and allows the Treasurer to authorise payments from the Consolidated Fund until the 2020-2021 budget is enacted
- extends the period for the Treasurer and government departments and statutory bodies to prepare annual and financial reports
- provides a payroll tax exemption for additional wages paid to employees to satisfy the wage condition for the Commonwealth’s JobKeeper scheme.
Mr Shoebridge (The Greens) sought to reduce the length of the extensions to reporting obligations, however the amendments were defeated. Mr Secord (Australian Labor Party) did amend the bill to strengthen the obligation of the Treasurer to publicly release the Half-yearly review for 2020 and the monthly statements for 2020-2021.
The bill makes various amendments to six Acts administered by the Attorney General. For example the bill:
- enables court security officers to use thermal imaging scans or contactless thermometers to check a person’s temperature when entering a court and may deny entrance if a person has a temperature
- temporarily removes written plea provisions to reduce the number of people required to appear physically in the Local Court
- allows for the making of regulations that modify or suspend various requirements regarding the certification, lodgement or witnessing of documents
- includes a new power to direct an accused person who is not in custody to appear via audio-visual link.
Mr Latham (One Nation) unsuccessfully sought to omit two provisions in the bill. First, relating to taking the temperature of persons entering courts as he considered it inappropriate to require security officers to administer this provision as they do not have medical training, and second, the appearance via audio-visual link of accused persons who are not in custody.
Private members’ Bills
The bill introduced by Mr Latham (One Nation) seeks to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of a person’s religious beliefs or religious activities in work or other areas.
Mr Latham stated that the focus of the bill is equality. He noted that it was developed in response to recommendations in the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review that New South Wales should amend anti-discrimination legislation to ensure that a person’s religious belief is protected against discrimination just as a person’s race, gender, sexuality or disability is protected.
Mr Latham explained that the bill would make it unlawful for employers to prevent employees from engaging in religious activity and discussed recent high profile examples to illustrate why the legislation is necessary. At the conclusion of his second reading speech, the bill was adjourned for five calendar days.
The bill, introduced by Mr Banasiak (Shooters, Fishers and Farmers), seeks to amend the Water (Commonwealth Powers) Act 2008 to involve the New South Wales Parliament in water decisions that affect the state and ensure greater transparency and scrutiny.
Mr Banasiak stated that the government has allowed the Commonwealth-managed Murray Darling Basin Plan to negatively impact the people of New South Wales. While this bill would not terminate the plan it would allow the New South Wales Parliament to once again scrutinise and determine whether the referral of powers to the Commonwealth are appropriate. At the conclusion of the member’s speech, the second reading debate was adjourned for 5 calendar days.
Orders for papers
The following orders for papers motions were agreed to on Wednesday:
- Police investigation involving the Minister for Police and Emergency Services (Mr Shoebridge) – due by 3 June 2020
- Supplies to public schools (Mrs Houssos) – due by 3 June 2020
- Transport asset management plans (Mr Veitch) – due by 3 June 2020
- Workers compensation scheme providers (Mr Mookhey) – due by 27 June 2020
- Remuneration package of the NSW Police Commissioner (Mr Shoebridge) – due by 2 June 2020
- Get Wild Pty Ltd (Ms Hurst) – due by 17 June 2020
- Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link Business Cases – Further order (Mr Graham) – due by 14 May 2020
- Powerhouse Museum (Mr Borsak) – due by 10 June 2020
- Taxi industry (Mr Banasiak) – due by 3 June 2020
- Federal financial relations review (Mr Mookhey) – due by 3 June 2020
- Personal protective equipment (Mr Borsak) – due by 27 June 2020
The following other motions were debated and agreed to on Wednesday:
- Drought records (Mr Field)
- Commencement of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Mr Searle)
What next? Amendments to the 2020 sitting calendar
As the final act of the sitting week, the House made formal amendments to the 2020 sitting calendar to ensure that it can continue to sit during the pandemic while at the same time taking into account the safety and wellbeing of members of Parliament and staff.
Minister Tudehope moved that the sitting calendar from 12 May to 17 September be amended to read:
- June: 2, 3, 4, 16, 17, 18
- August: 4, 5, 6
- September: 15, 16, 17
This means that the Legislative Council will next meet at 2.30 pm on Tuesday 2 June 2020.