The Canberra Liberals have accused the ACT Government of trying to rush through legislation without affording a committee inquiry enough time to scrutinise the fine print.
It comes after the Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety (JACS) had put forward a request to change the reporting dates for four inquiries being undertaken by the committee into the Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill (2023), the Human Rights Healthy Environment Amendment Bill (2023), the Parentage Surrogacy Amendment Bill (2023) and the Sexual, Family and Personal Violence Amendment Bill (2023).
Committee inquiries are required to hand back their reports within three months of being presented to the Legislative Assembly.
Chair Peter Cain said the JACS committee was seeking an extension of reporting dates for the above matters to 14 March 2024, especially given the Healthy Environment amendment bill had only been presented during the last sitting week earlier this month.
“The committee is keen to do a thorough inquiry into these pieces of important legislation,” he said.
He pointed to the looming Christmas break having a “significant impact” on the committee’s ability to do a comprehensive review and to hear from relevant stakeholders.
However, Minister Mick Gentleman moved an amendment to this motion, proposing to remove the Healthy Environment amendment bill from the motion but allowing an extension of time for the other three.
“While the government understands the Justice and Community Safety committee’s workload, a referring of the reporting time of not one but four bill inquiries, particularly in the lead up to a busy final year [of term], is not something that should just be waved through,” he said.
“The Human Rights Healthy Environment Amendment Bill (2023) is at some risk of complications if not debated in the March sittings of 2024.
“If delayed, there’s a chance that the work that needs to be undertaken to prepare for and commence the right will be compromised by the caretaker period.”
Mr Gentleman said the amendment had previous consultation and “is very short as far as bills go”.
The bill forms part of the Parliamentary and Governing Agreement (PAGA) and its commencement has already been delayed by six months.
Given there’s an election in October next year, government business must be suspended during the caretaker period before the election.
Speaking as committee chair, Mr Cain said this amendment was of “great concern” to him given the committee structure was “the only check and balance” available as in the ACT’s unicameral parliament, “the pure numbers can make a law about anything”.
“I suspect [this] is unprecedented, in this term of government, for the minister to stand up and say ‘I’m not going to let a committee express itself through an inquiry process and to do a full and proper inquiry as this committee has decided,” he said.
He rebuffed the reasons given by Mr Gentleman, including the argument it’s a “short bill”.
“Short doesn’t mean insignificant,” Mr Cain said.
“These are confected and fabricated reasons to suit the government’s agenda.
“I urge the members of the assembly not to interfere with the committee structure, which is one of the very few things the community has to say, ‘What’s keeping this government in check?'”
Canberra Liberals MLA Ed Cocks also questioned if the Healthy Environment amendment bill was part of the PAGA, why it had taken the government so long to present it to the Assembly.
“All the levers here are in the control of the government,” he said.
“The government is in control of the transition time. The government decides when a bill is presented. The government decides when it is debated.
“It was entirely feasible for this government to prioritise … this piece of work earlier in the term, but it hasn’t.”
Mr Cain closed the argument expressing his concerns for his committee to do its work thoroughly.
“It is very, very concerning that Mr Gentleman is seeking to use the numbers of the government to oppose the wishes of a committee that I am here representing,” he said.
Fellow committee member Dr Marisa Paterson noted Mr Cain’s comments on Mr Gentleman’s amendment did not reflect the view of the entire committee.
Mr Gentleman’s amended motion was agreed to by the Labor and Greens MLAs.