As another year draws to a close, join us for a quick look back at some of the key stats, facts and events from the Legislative Council’s work in 2021…

By the numbers: Facts and figures from 2021

We said it last year… but what a year! The quantity of work completed by the Council has continued to increase, both in the House and through committees. Read on for the stats.

In the House

The House sat for a total of 382 hours over 37 sitting days – although, technically the House sat for a total of 2026 hours, given the House rose on 24 March ‘on a long bell’ and did not conclude that sitting day until 4 May, and then had a second long bell from 14 September to 12 October!

Across those 37 sitting days, the House agreed to 58 bills, with 47 Government bills and 11 private members’ bills. This is a slight increase from 2020, when the House passed 52 bills, made up of 44 Government bills and 8 private members’ bills.

Continuing a trend in place since the beginning of the 57th Parliament in 2019, the House agreed to a record number of orders for papers in 2021, at 172 orders. This is almost a 50% increase on the orders agreed to in 2020 (116), and a 230% increase on the number agreed to in 2019 (52).

In committees

Committees maintained a similar pace, commencing 45 inquiries and tabling 43 reports. The final and interim reports spanned topics as diverse as gay and transgender hate crimes, the development of a hydrogen industry and the NSW Government grants program, and all of them can be accessed through the Parliament’s reports page. There were also 160 inquiries hearings in 2021, held both in the NSW Parliament and at locations through regional NSW – while during COVID lockdown, our first fully virtual hearings were held. Recordings from many of the year’s hearings remain on YouTube here. As part of our inquiries, thousands of submissions were made from across the NSW community.

Hellos and goodbyes: A new President and new member for the Legislative Council

2021 saw the election of Mr Mason-Cox as the current President of the Legislative Council, following the resignation of former President Ajaka. As we’ve described previously, the election proceedings were unusual and at times tumultuous, beginning on 24 March, suspended on the ringing of a long bell, and concluding on 4 May, with members voting in President Mason-Cox 23 votes to 18.

President Matthew Mason-Cox (left) now presides over the Legislative Council

Meanwhile, Mr Ajaka returned to give his valedictory (farewell speech) in June, for which the House agreed to a very unique procedure. As Mr Ajaka was now a ‘stranger’, he was unable to enter the chamber and speak at the Table. Instead, the House authorised him to speak at the ‘Bar of the House’. This procedure is used very rarely and in the past only to call witnesses to be examined by the House.

Former President of the Legislative Council John Ajaka speaks at the Bar of the House while his family, current President Matthew Mason-Cox and Council Clerks and members looking on

Following Mr Ajaka’s resignation, the vacancy in the Council was filled by Mr Poulos, who was elected as the Council’s newest member during a joint sitting with the Legislative Assembly on 6 May. While delayed owing to COVID lockdown and safety arrangements, Mr Poulos delivered his inaugural speech during the last sitting of the year, which you can watch here.

Just after his election to the Council, newest member Peter Poulos shakes hands with the President

COVID and the sitting of the House

The Council entered 2021 with a number of COVID-safe arrangements introduced in 2020 continuing, including social distancing. Sessional orders agreed to in March 2020 to give the House more flexibility in the COVID-19 pandemic also remained in operation, while committees continued to have virtual hearings in the mix.

Notably, the outbreak of the Delta variant in June 2021 saw the debate and passage of the annual Budget Bills occur in a matter of 10 minutes, after the Leader of the House (Mr Tudehope) moved a conduct of business motion to, among other things, allow the key bills of the Budget – the Appropriation Bill 2021 and Appropriation (Parliament) Bill 2021 – to take precedence over all other business.

Mr Tudehope also moved a ‘special adjournment’ motion. This had the effect of authorising the House to skip the sitting day originally scheduled for Friday 25 June 2021, and to reconvene on the next sitting day scheduled after the winter recess (being Tuesday 10 August 2021), unless the President (or if the President was unwell and unable to act, the Deputy President) fixed an alternative day.

When the entire state entered lockdown in early July, Parliament followed suit, closing its doors to members of the public. While the Council was due to sit in August, under the sessional order introduced in March 2020, the Leader of the Government wrote to the President asking him to postpone these sittings, noting the health orders in place. The President agreed, postponing the sittings until September.

The Council then met on 14 September for the first time since June – although not for long. As the sitting day began, Deputy President Mr Khan (Nationals) drew the President’s attention to the absence of a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary in the chamber. Under Standing Order 34 (before it was recently amended) “the House will not meet unless a Minister is present in the House”. Following debate from the members on the point of order, the President advised that he would leave the chair until the ringing of a long bell, effectively suspending the sitting day.

You can watch the President’s statement in full below:

The President gives a statement before suspending the 14 September sitting

The House ultimately returned on 12 October – although in the Council it was still 14 September (owing to the President having left the Chair on a long bell). This meant that the House first had to ‘adjourn’ this September sitting, before it returned an hour later to commence the October sittings.

With the sitting underway, a quick succession of measures were implemented to ensure the sittings took place in a COVID-safe manner. First, a motion was moved by the Leader of the House to set out the conduct of business for the House for the day, including changes such as:

  • Allowing members to give a notice of motion by emailing the Procedure Office
  • Removing take note of answers and debate on committee reports
  • Allowing certain items to be recorded in the Minutes, without first having to be reported in the House.

The House then adopted a temporary order to authorise members to participate in the sittings remotely, ‘dialling in’ to screens pre-installed in the chamber. Under the temporary order members were able to participate in debate, table documents, move amendments to bills and ask questions of ministers. A small number of restrictions were placed on some aspects of proceedings for those participating remotely, such as taking points of order and voting.

The House also adopted a temporary order to facilitate ‘walk-through divisions’, to minimise the time that large groups of members would need to spend in the chamber together, and also agreed to a COVID-safe plan, requiring compulsory mask wearing, rapid antigen testing and enhanced ventilation measures.

While walk-through divisions and remote participation concluded in the following week, the continuation of a number of other COVID-safe measures meant that the Council was able to sit safely and without incident for the remaining sitting days scheduled for 2021.

Changes to Standing Order 34

Following the suspended 14 September sitting day, Standing Order 34 was back in the spotlight. As noted above, this order required that a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary be present in the chamber for the House to meet.

When the Council resumed sitting in October 2021, it agreed to a new sessional order (on division, 21 ayes to 12 noes) to allow the House to sit in circumstances where a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary isn’t present. The sessional order allows any member to move a motion without notice proposing that the sitting continue, and as a result of an amendment moved by Mr Shoebridge (The Greens), does not require a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary to be present for the vote on this motion. In such circumstances, Government business cannot be considered without a Minister present. The sessional order also allows the question that the House adjourn (usually proposed by a Minister) to be proposed by the President.

Introduction of ePetitions

This year the Council introduced a new digital petitioning platform to make raising issues and making requests of the Parliament simpler and more accessible than ever. The ePetitions system was launched on 19 October, following the passing of a sessional order to provide for the new format. You can learn more about ePetitions with our info and videos here.

Support to establish a Compliance Officer

To allow claims of minor misconduct against members of NSW Parliament to be better addressed – including claims of bullying and harassment – in May, following its inquiry into the matter, the Council’s Privileges Committee reported its support for the appointment of a new Compliance Officer role, and associated changes to the Parliament’s Code of Conduct for members. With the Legislative Assembly’s own committee reporting similar support in July, a further Council report was tabled in November which addressed differences with the Assembly Committee’s recommendations. A resolution to establish the position is currently before the House for debate in February.

A look at legislation

While 2021 was jam-packed with interesting procedural developments, the Council also continued its key role of introducing and scrutinising government legislation. Over the course of the year, a number of important bills were debated and amended by the Council, before being sent back to the Legislative Assembly for consideration of the amendments. A number of private members’ bills were also introduced and passed by Council members. While in no way an exhaustive list, just some of the highlights are included below:

Constitution Amendment (Virtual Attendance) Bill 2021

A private members’ bill, the Constitution Amendment (Virtual Attendance) Bill 2021 passed in the Council with amendments in October. If the bill passes in the Assembly and receives assent, it would amend the NSW Constitution to allow both Houses to continue to sit during times of ‘public emergency’ – such as during pandemic lockdowns – through audio-visual link (providing that a member is taken to be legally ‘present’ when attending virtually, for the purposes of voting and being counted in a quorum).

Modern Slavery Amendment Bill 2021

In November, the Council agreed to the Modern Slavery Amendment Bill 2021, which makes miscellaneous amendments to the Modern Slavery Act 2018 to combat modern slavery, slavery-like practices and human trafficking. You can read Minister Harwin’s speech on the bill in our earlier blog, as well as what members had to say during the second reading debate and committee of the whole. The Council also agreed to eight amendments proposed by the Assembly, which you can read about here. Of note, the bill sets a new date of 1 January 2022 for commencement of the Act, closing the chapter on a long-standing point of concern for the Council in 2021. In March, a number of motions criticising the non-commencement of this Act and the Government’s reasons for this non-commencement were agreed to by the House.

Energy Legislation Amendment Bill 2021

The Energy Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 was passed by both Houses in October, with a recap of proceedings in the Council here. Among other things, the bill amends several acts across the energy portfolio to support the development of a hydrogen and biogas industry in NSW, to allow the state to opt into the national regulatory framework for power systems, and to allow the Government to declare an electricity supply emergency if a cybersecurity incident affects energy supply.

Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Consent Reforms) Bill 2021

Implementing changes borne from a 2018 NSW Law Reform Commission review into the law of sexual consent, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Consent Reforms) Bill 2021 passed both Houses in November. It amends the Crimes Act 1900 to make it clearer that consent must be present at the time of sexual activity, and sets out the circumstances in which a person cannot be said to have consented. You can learn more in Minister Ward’s second reading speech here. Debate in the Council was impassioned and split across two days, including members sharing their own personal experiences and those of women who provided support to the review and the bill.

ICAC and Other Independent Commissions Legislation Amendment (Independent Funding) Bill 2021 (No. 2)

A private members’ bill passed in the Council at the end of the year, the ICAC and Other Independent Commissions Legislation Amendment (Independent Funding) Bill 2021 (No. 2) is now awaiting debate in the Legislative Assembly. Of note, an earlier iteration of the bill was introduced in the Council the month prior, but was ruled to be a ‘money bill’ under the Constitution Act 1902 (a type of bill that must originate in the Assembly) – hence the current bill is described as ‘No. 2’. Meanwhile, a 2020 version of the bill was introduced around the same time last year, but while it passed in the Council, the second reading of the bill was negatived in the Assembly.

If passed, the bill would establish independent funding structures for the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and other agencies including the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, the New South Wales Electoral Commission, the Ombudsman’s Office and the Audit Office. Learn more in our earlier blogs here (the second reading) and here (the passage).

Local Government Amendment (Disqualification from Civic Office) Bill 2020

A private members’ bill introduced in early 2021, the Local Government Amendment (Disqualification from Civic Office) Bill 2020 was passed without amendment in the Council in November and now awaits debate in the Legislative Assembly. It was Mr Secord’s first bill to pass in the Council, and would amend the Local Government Act 1993 to disqualify real estate agents and property developers from holding civic office – such as becoming a councillor or mayor of a city council – and from holding the office of a chairperson or becoming a member of a county council. November’s debate is captured in our blog entry here.

And what about the rest?

With 58 bills passed and more still debated, if you’d like to explore other legislation from the year:

And that’s a wrap! A big thanks for joining us this year, and here’s to an exciting 2022. The House will resume sitting from 22 February (find the sitting calendar here), our committees will be back up and at it from late January (filter for all our active inquiries here), and we hope to bring you plenty of interesting insights and info across the new year.

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