Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler

An unserious approach to law-making

The House of Representatives will start the committee stage of the End of Life Choice Bill later today, during which all MPs get the opportunity to propose amendments to a bill, and given the contest around the bill, we can expect a number.

Which is a problem. We shouldn’t have to expect amendments. We should know what is proposed, and have a chance to consider the changes. Not a full submissions process, but for interested people to have the opportunity to look over the proposals to find any problems, and alert others to them.

This is particularly important in the case of the End of Life Choice Bill, as its Select Committee process, while thorough, did not address much of the detail of the bill in the usual way because of the bill’s status as a conscience issue.

Even when the select committee process works in the usual way, mistakes can be made, and the usually several months (or even several weeks) between a select committee report and the second reading and committee of the whole stage allows interested members of the public the opportunity to spot mistakes. Past examples have include Law Professor Andrew Geddis noticing that the select committee recommendations on the law to remove the right to vote from sentenced prisoners, actually granted the right to vote to a bunch of them, and my noticing that the select committee recommendations on a bill dealing with coroners would have made public discussion of the 9/11 suicide attacks illegal.

For End of Life Choice, what we have – instead of full select committee consideration of all of the detail released as a recommendation a few months ago – are several competing alternative proposals, advanced by different MPs. On a conscience issue like this one, that was always going to be the case, but rather than providing people several weeks to consider these approaches, and whether those alternatives are the best way to achieve their aims, the proposals have been made public the day before the vote, many of them seemingly after the close of business.

I understand that the proposed amendments of ACT MP David Seymour, the bill’s sponsor have been made available to select stakeholders and some MPs before their public release. After I tweeted about the absence of his proposals, he arranged to have a copy sent to me on Monday. But for everyone else with an interest in ensuring MPs don’t inadvertently pass a law that doesn’t fulfil their intentions, there's a lot of work to do in the next eight hours.

National MP Maggie Barry, the bill’s leading Parliamentary opponent, is reported as having indicated she may propose over 100 amendments to the bill. Two have been made publicly available. Her National colleagues have proposed a number of others, with 23 publicly available.

Do any of the amendments do what they intend? Are some of the good ideas that would be better ideas if worded differently? I can’t really tell you. Nor can anyone else. Some seem sensible, or workable, but how do they gel with other proposals that might also pass? I don’t know that either.

Some of them seem to be the type of small change that often gets made late in the process, but I’ve no idea which might have pitfalls that could be avoided by a short period of public scrutiny.

Substantive legislative proposals should not be released mere hours before they are voted on. It involves the type of short circuit of the public legislative process that both David Seymour and I decried with the recent firearms legislation, and I extend my criticism here.

This is an unserious approach to law-making, and MPs should reject it. Absent a delay in the legislative process – even just to the next members’ day – MPs should vote down all of the recently-proposed amendments to the End of Life Choice Bill, and then vote down the bill itself.