The Legislative Council is one of two houses of the Parliament of Western Australia. Often known as the upper house, it is independent from the Legislative Assembly but shares the work of legislating and scrutinising government performance and expenditure.
There are 36 members of the Legislative Council drawn from six electoral regions across the state. The electoral regions are divided equally between regional and metropolitan areas. The Agricultural, Mining and Pastoral and South West Regions return 18 members and the East Metropolitan, North Metropolitan and South Metropolitan Regions also return 18 members. Members are elected under a system of proportional representation from multi-member electorates, as opposed to members of the Legislative Assembly who are elected in single-member electorates. This may result in a different political composition between the houses.
Government is formed in the Legislative Assembly regardless of the composition of the Legislative Council. This gives the Legislative Council an important role as a check on the government, particularly when the government does not have the majority in the upper house and therefore needs to obtain the support of some of the non-government members to pass legislation or other measures.
Although most government ministers are drawn from the lower house, at least one minister (and usually more) must be an upper house member.
The Legislative Council operates according to a set of rules known as the standing orders and rulings issued by the President to clarify the meaning of the standing orders and how they apply.
The Legislative Council has the following three core functions:
- Representing the people, which includes using parliamentary processes such as asking questions, moving substantive motions and undertaking committee inquiries;
- Deliberating on proposed laws; deliberation includes legislating, i.e. passing Bills, but may also include disagreeing with a Bill; and
- Acting as a House of Review by scrutinizing the Executive Government.
Members of the Legislative Council spend a large proportion of the sitting day considering bills (draft laws) which may deal with a variety of issues affecting Western Australians, such as health, education, justice, welfare and roads. Bills must pass through both houses of Parliament before they become law. A bill can be introduced into either house with the exception of bills dealing with appropriating or borrowing money, and taxation, sometimes referred to as money bills. Those bills must originate in the Legislative Assembly, as the house of government.
A bill goes through a number of formal stages and must be passed by both houses in identical form before it becomes an act. The Legislative Council regularly refers bills to its committees for a detailed review and consideration of how the proposed law will affect the community. The committee’s report will often make recommendations to improve the bill, including suggested amendments.
Some bills are heavily reliant on regulations to give effect to the act. This is known as subsidiary legislation and is delegated to a government agency to produce. A joint house delegated legislation committee reviews delegated legislation to ensure it falls within the parameters of the act.
The Legislative Council is often called the house of review because of its function of monitoring and reviewing legislation and scrutinising the budget and administration of government departments and other public agencies. Members use parliamentary processes such as question time, debates in the house and estimates committees, where ministers respond to questions, to ensure the accountability of government to the Parliament and the people of this state.
Members of the Legislative Council inform the public of, and debate, the government’s actions and other matters of public concern. Members use processes such as parliamentary committees, question time and other procedures such as moving motions, conducting urgency debates, introducing bills and presenting petitions on behalf of members of the public.
Committees consist of nominated members drawn from the various political parties in the Legislative Council. There are standing (permanent) committees, which play an ongoing role such as reviewing delegated or subordinate legislation, and select (temporary) committees, which are established for a particular purpose and disband once that purpose is completed. Often complex or controversial matters are referred to a committee so that difficulties can be resolved by the committee, rather than by lengthy debate in the Council itself. Time is set aside during each sitting week for members to discuss committee reports in the house. This will often involve debate on the government’s response to any recommendation made by a particular committee.
Members may ask ministers, who are members of the Legislative Council, questions about their portfolios, or those of lower house ministers they represent. Sometimes members give prior notice of the question to enable the minister to collate information. The questions and their answers are published in Hansard. Members may also submit written questions to ministers, to which ministers may give a written reply. Question time is normally held in the Legislative Council at approximately 4.30 pm on each sitting day and is televised.
Other parliamentary procedures
Members of the Council can move motions, conduct urgency debates, introduce bills, and table petitions on behalf of members of the public, all in an effort to monitor or comment on the government and matters of public interest in an open forum.