HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.33 pm]: In the dying days of the fortieth Parliament, I want to finally have a bit of a spray about something that has been annoying me this entire past four years, and that is the lack of transparency around the publishing of state agreement acts. The Greens have an in-principle objection to state agreement acts. We have long maintained that they are anti-competitive because they dis-apply and modify state laws for the convenience of the other party, while the rest of us have to abide by state laws as per usual.
State agreement acts have one redeeming feature—that is, because they are legislation, they are at least published, unlike state agreements that are not the subject of an act. One would think that that would make them transparent but, unfortunately, that is not the case. That is what I will focus on this afternoon.
As members know, when a state agreement bill is introduced in Parliament, it occurs in two parts. The second part is the schedule containing the agreement and the first part ratifies that agreement. Members also know that bills that amend state agreement acts take that same two-part form; again, the second part is the schedule containing the agreement to vary the principal agreement and the first part ratifies that agreement. So far that is transparent. But when an amended state agreement act is published on the Western Australian Legislation website, it is not an updated, consolidated form of the agreement. What is published is a consolidated version of the act but not a consolidated version of the schedules. Each new schedule that contains a new variation agreement just gets tacked on the end, so to read the agreement as a whole, people have to manually track the contents of every schedule back to the principal agreement. Even then they might not end up with a consolidated version of the state agreement because the variation clause in the state agreement might provide for methods of variation other than via the amending act. Sometimes the variation clause only requires the government to table the variation agreement in Parliament and, in that case, people have to search under tabled papers but, again, they will not get a consolidated version so they have to track all the variations manually. If the variation clause also provides for the disallowance of variation agreements, people have to search for the disallowances as well. Sometimes the variation clause only requires that the variation be via written agreement between the parties and, in that case, people will not find any record of it; they will not even know whether there has been a variation. On top of that, things get even more complicated if the variation clause itself is varied. The state agreement might include all the things that I have just mentioned. That is why I say that, ultimately, state agreements are not transparent instruments.
There is only one way that members of Parliament or members of the public can get a consolidated version of a state agreement, and that is from one of the parties to the state agreement. The Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation holds consolidated state agreements on behalf of the government, but it does not publish them on the website. People have to ask for a copy. Parliamentarians can request them. Members of Parliament can request them anonymously via the Parliamentary Library, and bouquets to the Parliamentary Library for enabling that to occur. But even then, do members get a complete and current consolidated version from the government? No, not necessarily.
On 31 October 2017, at the beginning of this term of Parliament, my colleague Hon Diane Evers asked a question in Parliament seeking the tabling of complete and current consolidated versions of certain state agreements. They were duly tabled, as they should have been. However, the cover page stated that they were not an official version and that accuracy could not be guaranteed. A disclaimer stated that no warranty was given that they were free from error or omission, that they included all amendments or as to the accuracy of any information in them. Frankly, members, that is simply not good enough.
As members of Parliament, we regularly debate bills that amend state agreement acts without seeing exactly what is being amended. When the government introduces bills to amend state agreement acts, it does not table a consolidated version of the state agreement with the bill. Quite simply, it should. If members look at the blue bill for the Railway (BBI Rail Aus Pty Ltd) Agreement Amendment Bill 2020 on the parliamentary website—that bill is currently on the notice paper of the other place—they will see that the first part, the ratification part, is a consolidated version, but the second part, the schedule that is the variation agreement itself, is tacked onto the end as usual. It states things, such as —
The Principal Agreement is varied as follows:
(1) in clause 1 by deleting the word “and” after the definition of “SRL spur line Operation Date” and inserting the following definitions after the definition of “this Agreement”, “hereof” and “hereunder” ...
Members of Parliament need to have unfettered access to consolidated versions of state agreements. We need to be able to access them. The public should be able to access them as well without having to go through their member of Parliament. These state agreements have gone through Parliament. All this term the Greens have been asking the government to publish complete consolidated current forms of all state agreements and all this term the government has been resisting. On 28 March 2018, the government said that it would consider keeping consolidated copies on the department’s website in the future. On 19 November 2019, the government said consolidated copies could not be published on the Western Australian Legislation website because, since some variations are by tabling and some are by written agreement, the Parliamentary Counsel’s Office does not have complete records of all the variations. On 19 March this year, the government said that the Premier had asked the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation to examine the logistics and preferred options. Then, just recently, on 3 November this year, the government said that consolidated copies would be made publicly available but that the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation would look at the best means of achieving this outcome.
Honestly, I would not think that it is beyond the wit of the government to ensure that consolidated copies of state agreements are made available under the state agreements tab that is already on the department’s website, especially since it is the other party to the agreement and it already has them. I think we need better transparency around this. It makes it very difficult for MPs to do their job, and I also think that members of the public should be entitled to access what effectively should be public information.
HON MICHAEL MISCHIN (North Metropolitan — Deputy Leader of the Opposition) [5.41 pm]: I do not want to take up much of the house’s time, but I listened with interest to Hon Alison Xamon’s account of the difficulties of accessing copies of state agreements. I know that Hon Robin Chapple has from time to time suggested that when some amendments are being amended by way of legislation, they ought to be referred to a standing committee of this house or some equivalent to consider the effect of those proposed amendments. I am not stating a party position here, merely a personal one. I think that there is an enormous amount of merit in that, particularly with regard to the issues Hon Alison Xamon raised about the opaqueness of changes that may be occurring and about changes that are proposed by a new bill being very technical and that there should be some entitlement to examine what the state government is committing the state and the people of Western Australia to.
I was interested to hear about the difficulties that she has experienced. There seems to be no reason why amendments could not be incorporated as they go along with every other statute and regulation that is on the state publisher’s website. I think that the next Parliament ought to give some consideration to whether a standing committee have referred to it, in the same manner as uniform legislation and the like, proposed amendments to state agreements so that the house can receive the considered advice on the effect of those proposed changes.