The Victorian Government’s Review of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 1996 (Vic) has begun with a call for public submissions. Attorney-General Martin Pakula said, “We’re inviting all Victorians to play a role in shaping how their fundamental rights are upheld by Government into the future.” The Review has published a background brief and discussion paper to frame the discussion, and has requested even brief submissions. Meanwhile, in Queensland, independent MP Peter Wellington offered support for Labor’s minority government on condition that it would investigate introducing a statutory bill of rights modelled on the Victorian Charter. Although he has subsequently said this is a low priority, civil libertarians have begun to agitate for change. James Cook University’s Kate Galloway says she has changed her mind and now supports a bill of rights, in part because Queensland’s unicameral parliament provides fewer checks and balances on the government of the day. It is unlikely a similar debate will occur at the national level; in 2009, Tony Abbott argued, “Bills of rights are left-wing tricks to allow judges to change society in ways a parliament would never dare.”
The Abbott Government is struggling to make laws, as the AFR‘s Laura Tingle observed: “Consider the government’s legislative record for 2015. It is not good. It has passed just one piece of legislation through both houses of parliament this year… On all its major reforms, its lack of political capital now renders the government impotent in the Parliament.” In part, this is because with 33 seats the Government does not have a majority in the Senate, and must find an extra six votes from Labor (29), the Greens (10) or a diverse group of minor party and independent senators (8). (The task has become more difficult with the resignations of Jacqui Lambie and Glen Lazarus from the Palmer United Party; they must now be courted separately.) The difficulty of negotiating bills through the Senate is highlighted by the Government’s proposed higher education reforms, which involve funding cuts to be made up through deregulation of student fees. The Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, adopted a tough negotiating stance, threatening to end a scientific research program if the bill wasn’t passed. This was rejected by most of the crossbench senators, and Pyne said he had “fixed it” by splitting the bill into two parts. The first, dealing with fee deregulation, was rejected yesterday, with only three crossbenchers supporting it. Pyne now says he will reintroduce it later, potentially creating a trigger for a double dissolution election. However, Professor Anne Twomey explains that the Government would be unlikely to pull that trigger because, while the they might be able to pass the deadlocked bill through a joint sitting under section 57, “it would be likely to make it even harder for the Coalition to negotiate [other] bills through the Senate. Because 12 Senators would be elected in a State, rather than six, the quota for winning a seat would be lower. This makes it much easier for micro parties and independents to win seats.” A joint sitting to resolve a deadlock has only occurred once in Australia’s history.