Last week in Parliament

You may have been reading about the unsuccessful amendments to the Coronavirus Economic Response Package that opposition MPs and Senators attempted to pass last week.

The amendments related to expanding the Government’s JobKeeper payment to include more workers, such as casual workers, workers with major charities and working-visa holders who are still in the country. They also called on the Government to create a specific emergency response package for the Arts and Entertainment sector, as many workers in that sector are ineligible for the JobKeeper payment. (You can see how your representatives voted on expanding the JobKeeper payment and supporting the Arts sector on They Vote For You.)

The majority of these amendments were proposed by Labor Party MPs and, while there was broad agreement between Labor, the Greens and other opposition parties and independents, there was also disagreement. For example, Labor Party senators refused to support several substantive Greens amendments in the Senate, arguing that to do so would only delay the passage of the bills. In the words of ACT Senator Katy Gallagher (Labor):

We will not engage in a situation where the legislation could get blocked between chambers. That is not an option.

Though this raises the question: if the Labor Party were unwilling to risk any delay to the legislation, why did they propose any amendments at all?

The answer relates to the difference between substantive amendments – like what the Greens senators proposed – and what could be called unsubstantial amendments.

Substantive versus ‘unsubstantial’ amendments

A substantive amendment would be one that is introduced in order to change the actual wording of the bill. This can mean replacing words, deleting words or adding new words (for example, adding a new clause). On the other hand, an ‘unsubstantial’ amendment wouldn’t make any changes to the bill itself but would instead change the wording of, for example, one of the usual procedural motions.

What are the usual procedural motions?

When a bill goes through Parliament, there are certain motions that must be agreed to. One of these is the second reading motion, which is:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Reading a bill for a second time is parliamentary jargon for agreeing with the main idea of the bill. If this motion is successful, the bill will then be considered in greater detail. If it is unsuccessful, then the bill is said to have failed and will no longer be considered by either house of parliament.

Amendments to procedural motions don’t affect the content of the bill. Instead, they can be used to express an opinion towards the bill. For example, an MP may propose to add the text: “but the House believes the Government is doing a very bad job.” Even if this proposed amendment is successful, it doesn’t actually change anything: the bill will still be read a second time and will continue its passage through the House. The only change is that future readers of the parliamentary record will be able to see that the majority of the House was unhappy with the Government at that time.

Last week’s amendments

With the exception of one substantive amendment in the House, all of the Labor Party’s proposed amendments were of the unsubstantial kind. That is, they proposed to add text to the end of the usual second reading motion but didn’t actually make any changes to the bills.  For example, Rankin MP Jim Chalmers (Labor) introduced the following unsubstantial motion:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

” whilst not declining to give these bills a second reading, the House:

(1) notes that this legislation gives the Treasurer extraordinary powers to include those not currently eligible for the JobKeeper Payment; and

(2) calls on the Treasurer to use his power under this legislation to ensure more jobs are protected and that struggling, otherwise viable businesses and organisations are able to access the JobKeeper Payment”.

This unsubstantial amendment was unsuccessful, but even if it had passed, it would not have made any actual change to the bills. Instead, future readers of the parliamentary record would simply be able to read about how the majority of the House wanted the Treasurer to use his powers – the Treasurer himself wouldn’t be bound to follow their advice.

The Labor Party’s one substantive amendment was moved by MP for Watson Tony Burke (Labor) during the Consideration in Detail stage, which is when the House debates the bill in greater detail. That amendment proposed to add new words to a clause in the bill but was unsuccessful because it did not have the support of the Coalition MPs.

In the Senate, the opposition senators often have the numbers to pass amendments even when all the government senators vote against them. However, if the amendment is substantive and changes the wording of a bill, it needs to go back to the House of Representatives for our MPs’ approval before it can become part of the bill.

This is where bills can become stuck: the government majority in the House will refuse to agree with the Senate’s amendments and the opposition majority in the Senate will refuse to accept the bill without those amendments.

Because the Government had already made clear that they would not be agreeing with any amendments in the House, the Labor Party senators decided not to attempt any substantive amendments in the Senate. They also chose not to support the Greens Party senators’ substantive amendments, which only received the support of senators from the Greens and Centre Alliance parties.

What next for Parliament?

Currently, Parliament will not sit again until 11 August 2020, due to concerns about spreading COVID-19. But according to ABC News:

… Mr Albanese [Leader of the Opposition] doesn’t accept that argument. He maintains that parliaments in other nations affected by coronavirus continue to meet and scrutinise their governments’ policies.

Whether the Opposition will succeed in convincing the Government to re-open Parliament remains to be seen.

UPDATE: The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that there may be a trial week of sitting in May.

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