You’d be forgiven for thinking that the very existence of national environmental laws creates an obligation on Environment Ministers to protect the environment. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Instead, their obligations are limited by the objects and duties that are specified in the law. And in the case of our...
At Humane Society International we rightly place great emphasis on law reform. Laws are important because they set the rules for how animals are treated—whether they be animals in human or wild environments. Weak animal welfare and environment laws allow animals to suffer from cruelty, neglect, exploitation, harm and habitat destruction, whereas strong laws can provide the rules and conditions for animals to have a good life, survive and thrive. This is why HSI will often alert our supporters to opportunities to get involved with law reform.
But law reform can take many twists and turns, which is why you will often find us calling on you several times over the process.
So how does law reform happen?
Parliaments pass laws. Governments administer them. Courts interpret them and determine whether the law has been breached. At least that is the case in the ‘Westminster System’, which is the system in action in Australia.
Parliaments are made up of all of the MPs and senators that we, the public, voted for. The party with the majority of MPs is usually the one that forms the government. Sometimes a party has to go into a coalition with another party to form a majority for government—a common example in Australia is the Liberal National Party coalition.
Australia is also a federation, meaning we have a federal parliament that deals with national matters (being the matters that the Constitution sets out as the Commonwealth government’s responsibility) and states and territories that have their own parliaments that deal with all other matters. We also have lots of local governments but we’ll leave them out of this explainer.
The houses of parliament
Most parliaments in Australia have two houses – a lower house and an upper house. A lower house (often called a Legislative Assembly) is where the MPs do their business, debate and vote on bills. The upper house (known as the Senate in the federal parliament and a Legislative Council in the states) is where senators or ‘Members of the Legislative Council’ do their business, debate and vote on bills.
Once a bill passes one house, it is referred to the other house to be debated and voted on. A bill becomes law when it has passed through both houses, meaning a majority of MPs and Senators have voted for it in each house.
Although, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory are notable because they only have a lower house for bills to get through.
But what is a bill?
A bill is a proposed piece of legislation (a draft law) before it has been voted on and passed into law. Any MP or senator can table a bill in the house of the parliament they sit in.
Each parliament will have what’s called a Parliamentary Counsel who help the politicians draft their bills.
Very often a bill is enshrining a policy idea or initiative that the public and organisations like HSI have spent a long time campaigning for. Ideally, the MP or senator will have done lots and lots of consultation on the bills they table so that they come to the parliament with community support. HSI will often suggest you get involved in that consultation.
But, of course, sometimes bills enshrine ideas that serve vested interests that will make things worse for animals and then we have to ask MPs and senators not to vote for them.
Bills are referred to as ‘government bills’ when they are presented by a government MP by agreement of the government of the day. Government bills will usually be proposed by a minister in that government. Government bills will often have the best chance of success because the government will typically have a majority in the lower house of their parliament and therefore be able to get a majority of votes for their bills at least in that house.
When a government doesn’t ‘have the numbers’ in the upper house to pass their bill they have to negotiate to obtain enough votes. Often these negotiations will involve amendments to the bills to be able to win the votes needed.
Private members bills
Then there are ‘private members bills’. Private members bills usually come from the opposition parties or independents, but sometimes they will come from government backbenchers without agreement from the rest of their government. Private members have to work hard to get support for their bills to pass both houses. They will often have to get support from the government of the day because they will hold the majority of votes in the lower house.
The role of ‘the crossbench’
If the government presents a bill, and the major opposition party opposes the bill, negotiations will fall to MPs or Senators on the ‘cross bench’, often minor parties or independent MPs. This is another stage where we can get involved to suggest amendments and crossbench MPs can be very influential in determining the final detail of a law that gets voted through. This is why HSI will often suggest you send emails to lobby the crossbench MPs and senators!
Sound simple? In truth, it can get even more complicated than this!
“Off to a Committee”
Sometimes bills get ‘sent off to committees’ where they are scrutinized by a committee of MPs or senators from across different parties. These committees can call for submissions and witnesses to give evidence on their views and recommendations as to whether the bills should pass, fail or be amended. At the end of the committee consultation process the committee will write a report for the parliament to consider when they go on to debate, amend and vote on the bills. As policy experts HSI will often give evidence to the parliamentary committees that examine animal welfare and environment bills. We will also let our supporters know when you can send submissions to these committees to make sure they are aware of the views of the public when they write their reports.
Once a bill has been voted on and passed in both houses (or the one house in Queensland, ACT & NT) it becomes law once it receives ‘royal assent’ (meaning it is signed off by the relevant governor or Governor-General). The law will take effect 28 days later or on another date specified in the bill if a delay is needed for everyone to adjust to and prepare for the changes. on a date that was written in the bill. That date is when a law is ‘enacted’ and takes effect. Then it is up to the government of the day, and the relevant department, to administer and enforce the law. And how well that happens is a whole other story – and one that we have to work very hard at too!