Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Bill for Change

Maybe that cheque isn't quite as blank as Labor would have you believe.

In the lead-up to the election last year, Labor conceded defeat and started campaigning with the line "Don't give Barry O'Farrell a Blank Cheque".

The theory was, I expect, that people would be scared about what the Coalition would get up to if they won too convincingly.

As things eventuated (and as most people expected) the Coalition did of course win the election, and convincingly so - but did not win enough Upper House seats to have an outright majority there.

This of course means that to get legislation through the Upper House they need to bring either Labor or a minor party with them.

The presence of the Shooters and Fishers means that the task is a little easier than perhaps some might like - but nonetheless something is better than nothing.

We saw the Coalition having to give something away earlier this year when it came to getting their Power Sale Legislation through the Upper House. Of course what they had to give was a massively unpopular opportunity for hunting in our National Parks - but, as I said at the time, it was democracy at work.

Earlier this week, however, we saw a far more edifying example of this process.

Last year the Coalition introduced a real dog of a bill on graffiti.

I wrote at the time about why it was such an awful bill, at least in part. In short, there were there main changes to be made in the way that offenders could be dealt with.

The first was to require a court sentencing a person to community service for a graffiti offence to spend time cleaning up graffiti. This is sensible.

The second was to give the court various powers in relation a person's driver's licence if that person is convicted of a graffiti offence.

The powers included:
  • Extending the time the person could spend on their L's or P's by up to 6 months
  • Suspending a person's licence for up to 6 months, or
  • Reducing the threshold number of points before a person can have their licence suspended
I wrote about why it was a dumb idea at the time.

The third change was to remove the power to issue a caution to young offenders. Again, why it was that this change was necessary, and why the additional burden this would place up the court was justified was never properly explained.

In any event, the bill (as expected) sailed through the Lower House. An amendment was moved by Paul Lynch (ALP) to allow police to issue a caution for a first offence, but this was easily defeated. The bill was promptly passed and sent to the Upper House in August 2011.

Here, the Coalition ran into some more trouble. First, Labor moved a amendment. It was explained Adam Searle (ALP):
The changes he suggested were as follows:

  • To allow police the power to give a warning for a child where the offence was a first offence, and
  • To remove the power over drivers licences.
These amendments were made with only the Coalition opposed, and the bill was passed (with the Greens opposing the bill in its entirety) and returned to the Lower House.

The very next day, the Lower House rejected the amendments. When the bill bounced back to the Upper House in mid-September, the Upper House took the unprecedented step of asking for a "Free Conference" - essentially a working group of 10 Upper House and 10 Lower House members to try and reach a mutually acceptable solution.

The motion for a Free Conference was passed by the Upper House with the Coalition and the Christian Democrats Opposing it.

There matters ground to a halt. O'Farrell pontificated about how the Coalition had made this promise but couldn't get the bill passed, and it appeared that that was were things would lie.

Then, earlier this week, completely out of the blue, the Lower House rejected the request for a Free Conference and sent the bill back to the Upper House.
When it arrived, the leader of the Shooter and Fishers moved an amendement. As best I am able to understand it, the amendment removed the power to extend the period of time a young person must spend on L's or P's, removed the power to suspend a licence, but retained the power to reduce the number of points a person must accumulate before their licence as suspended.

As David Shoebridge said when speaking on the amendment, it improves the act (he said "marginally", but I suppose that is a matter of perspective).

The bill as amended was passed and returned again to the Lower House, where it will no doubt promptly pass.

The deal was reported in the Daily Terror as below:
I stand by my opinion that the bill remains a pretty awful one. It is a vague attempt to do "something" without any evidence whatsoever that the "something" will achieve anything. It is another example of politicians engaging in back-of-an-envelope lawmaking.

But it is good to see a bill being improved (however marginally) through the convoluted and drawn out parliamentary process.

It is also interesting to see the Shooters using their position in the Upper House to do this - so many have written about how the Shooters are merely O'Farrell's lapdogs, but here they have forced him to abandon what was seen a key promise made to take action of graffiti.

It remains to be seen if this is the trend or the exception.

*(I'm a little unsure about some of the procedural details above as, in places, I had some not inconsiderable trouble understanding the Hansard transcript. If I've misunderstood something, please let me know in the comments or on twitter)*

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