Our blog post for the last sitting week included a comprehensive explanation of the proceedings on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Local Government Elections) Bill 2021. This week we’re taking a closer look at the unusual procedure the House used to divide or ‘split’ the bill. This is a rare occurrence in the Legislative Council, having only been utilised three times previously.
HOW TO SPLIT A BILL
To split a bill, the House makes use of standing order 179 (SO179). We’ve blogged about this standing order before, as it relates to instructions to ‘committee of the whole’ (a refresher on that topic is available here). The relevant paragraph in SO179 states that “an instruction may be given to a committee on a bill to divide a bill into two or more bills or to consolidate several bills into one”.
This standing order was formalised in 2004, though the procedure had actually been used once prior to this – more on that later!
The instruction to give the committee the power to consider splitting a bill is moved at a very specifc stage – after the second reading has been agreed to and before the House resolves into committee of the whole. Once in the committee stage, the amendment to split the bill can be moved. If agreed to, the committee reports the action it has taken to the House as well as any other amendments to either the original or the newly created bill. Split bills are always taken to be from the House where the bill originated, no matter where the splitting occurred.
WHY SPLIT A BILL?
Now that we know the procedure, let’s consider why the House might use it. To do so we can look at two of the three occasions that the Council has split a bill.
In 2014 and 2017, the Council split Statute Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bills. This type of bill is commonly used by governments to make minor or non-controversial amendments to a range of Acts all at one time. Amendments to each Act are contained in a separate schedule at the back of the bill. In both cases, non-government members expressed concerns over particular provisions included in the Statute Law bills, so the government responded to members’ concerns by splitting those provisions out into separate bills, allowing more detailed consideration and debate on those important issues.
ANOTHER NOTABLE PRECEDENT
As foreshadowed, we now return to the first time the Council split a bill, where provisions of the Industrial Relations Amendment Bill 2000 became the Industrial Relations Amendment (Independent Contractors) Bill 2000. The original bill was returned to the Legislative Assembly along with a message outlining the action taken. The new bill remained in the Council for further consideration.
Despite the fact that a Government member had moved the amendment to split the bill, the Assembly noted its displeasure with this result. After (perhaps rather grudgingly!) agreeing to the Council’s action, the Assembly sent a message establishing its position that “the division of a bill in the House in which the bill did not originate is highly undesirable” and that the Assembly’s agreement in this case “is not to be taken as precedent”.
Nevertheless, the Council later adopted SO179 and has used it (though sparingly) since.
AN UNPRECEDENTED USE OF SO179
In the recent proceedings on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Local Government Elections) Bill 2021, Mr Harwin (Leader of the Government) moved the instruction and then the amendment to split the bill, marking the first time a bill originating in the Council has been split in committee of the whole.
To make matters even more interesting, Mr Shoebridge (Greens) moved an amendment to Mr Harwin’s amendment, to insert additional provisions into the split out Local Government Amendment (Elections) Bill, and to change the long title of the bill to reflect those provisions, which prohibit property developers from holding civic office.
The motion was agreed to as amended, and the committee reported both bills to the House. Both were then returned to the Assembly.
SO WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Local Government Elections) Bill 2021 has been assented to. The Local Government Amendment (Elections) Bill 2021 is still awaiting consideration by the Assembly. This is in order, as once split, there is no requirement for bills to considered together.
Now that we are familiar with the unprecedented use of the standing order to split a Council bill, perhaps someday we will see the other provision of SO179 utilised – an instruction to consolidate several bills into one! Stay tuned, as always, for more updates on rarely used parliamentary procedures…