The consequences of Charter s. 28(2)

The first ever attempt to use the Charter as a point of order in Victoria’s parliament, once again a new use of the Charter prompted by the abortion bill:

Mr Kavanagh — On a point of order, President, the bill mentioned is out of order. The bill was not introduced in this house or in the other house with a statement of compliance with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. A statement of compliance is required under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act before any bill with implications for rights in the charter can be considered by either house of this Parliament.

The minister in the other house and the responsible minister in this house have sought to rely on section 48 of the charter to avoid the need to produce a statement of compatibility. Legal opinion from legal firm Phillips Fox, which opinion is in the public domain, concludes that the minister was mistaken in so relying on that exclusion. Section 48 states in part: Nothing in this charter affects any law applicable to abortion or child destruction … But the bill affects much more than simply abortion and child destruction. The bill also affects a range of other rights that are detailed in the act, including guarantees of equality and non-discrimination under section 8(3) of the charter and issues of rights against unlawful or arbitrary interference with privacy under section 13(a) of the charter. The bill affects freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief guaranteed under section 14 of the charter. There are also issues about whether the bill raises new criminal offences.

This point canvasses the question of the scope of Charter s. 48, citing not only the legal advice about clause 8 but also, it seems, SARC’s concern about amendments to the ‘serious injury’ offences in clause 10. If these concerns are right, then Charter s. 28(2) has been breached:

28(2) A member of Parliament who introduces a Bill into a House of Parliament, or another member acting on his or her behalf, must cause the statement of compatibility prepared under subsection (1) to be laid before the House of Parliament into which the Bill is introduced before giving his or her second reading speech on the Bill.

(It’s possible that Charter s. 28(1) was also breached, but that depends on whether or not a statement was actually prepared for the Abortion Law Reform Bill.)

But what is the consequence of a breach? As the legal advice correctly pointed out, the Charter only spells out the (non-)consequences if the Bill is passed:

29 A failure to comply with section 28 in relation to any Bill that becomes an Act does not affect the validity, operation or enforcement of that Act or of any other statutory provision.

So, what happens before the Bill is passed? Kavanagh argues:

A required statement was not put before either house and therefore consideration of this bill by this house is out of order. I have several copies of the legal opinion from Phillips Fox for the benefit of members of the house if they so desire; that opinion completely supports my contention.

But the point was rejected:

The PRESIDENT — Order! In response both to the point of order and Mr Theophanous’s rebuttal and to Mr Kavanagh’s further point, I need to remind the house that I adjudicate on matters contained within the standing orders. The issue as to whether or not Mr Kavanagh is correct is a matter for the house. I must say it is a complicated and interesting point of order that Mr Kavanagh has raised, but I am confident in the advice I have been given that I have no authority to rule on that matter; it is simply a matter for the house. Any questions relating to the validity of the act are simply matters for the courts.

The relevant standing order appears to be:

14.02 A Bill not prepared according to the Standing Orders and practices of the Council will be ordered to be withdrawn by the President.

I don’t know enough about the law of parliamentary procedure to know if Kavanagh is correct that the President that compliance with Charter s. 28(2) isn’t part of the ‘Standing Orders and practices’ of the Council. (The incorporation of statements of compatibility into Hansard is part of the sessional orders of the Legislative Assembly, but weirdly not of the Legislative Council; however, the Council seems to follow the Assembly’s ‘practice’.) But, if true, it raises what seems to be a significant gap in those standing orders or practices.

It seems odd to me that a legal question – compliance with a section of the Charter, in turn turning on the meaning of another section – about parliamentary procedure – a requirement for something to be tabled before a second reading speech –  is outside the authority of the President of one of the houses. While consideration of a statement (and, I imagine, its adequacy) is surely a matter for the house, it seems strange that the issue of legality is also for the house. The final sentence on the ‘validity of the act’ seems to entirely miss the point, given that Charter s. 29 makes it clear that validity is not affected; the courts would, presumably, stay out of the issue anyway on the ground that complaince with parliamentary processes is non-justiciable. Rather, the question is whether compliance with a statute that regulates parliamentary processes is a matter for the President or for the members.

Kavanagh unsuccessfully tried to raise the point again, but that attempt was itself out of order:

Mr Kavanagh — On a point of order, President, I submit that something that is not compliant with the law is by definition out of order in this house. I have several copies of opinions provided by DLA Phillips Fox that support everything I have said.

The PRESIDENT — Order! I remind Mr Kavanagh and the house that one cannot debate one’s point of order. The point of order Mr Kavanagh has raised is directly related and very similar to the point of order he previously raised, so I rule it out of order.

The claim about being supported by Phillips Fox seems to be wrong. That legal advice did not address the question of the President’s powers, but only claimed that the Council ‘ought not proceed to vote’.

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