Oaths and Affirmations Bill 2017

Debate resumed from 21 September; motion of Mr JENNINGS (Special Minister of State).

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) (11:42:20) — I am pleased to make some remarks this morning on the Oaths and Affirmations Bill 2017. In commencing my contribution on the bill I must say it is remarkable that we find ourselves today, on Friday, 15 December, actually now commencing to debate it.

Ms Symes — We can go home.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — I take up the Government Whip's interjection that we can go home, and I am sure we will soon go home. In fairness, this bill is allowing us to briefly fill some time until another event in approximately 16 minutes time.

It does highlight, though, the way in which the government's legislative program has gone off the rails in the last six months. We have seen through the course of this week and certainly through the last three or four weeks — back basically to the commencement of this session after the winter recess — the government setting down a legislative agenda of, typically, six or seven bills a week that it wishes to have the Parliament consider, and then —

Ms Symes — Reasonable.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — Ms Symes says 'Reasonable', and I am not suggesting the number is unreasonable, but what I am suggesting is that the conduct of the legislative program rarely reflects what the government indicates its intentions are. We have seen that this week. At the commencement of the sitting this week the Service Victoria Bill 2017 was to be the government's first bill; it was listed on the notice paper last week as the first bill. However, as we saw with the Service Victoria Bill and we have seen with so many other bills, when members of this house come forward with different views or with amendments or alternative proposals, suddenly we see the government's legislative program fall apart.

That has happened time and time again over the last six months. We have seen bills brought on, we commence second-reading debates, then we adjourn second-reading debates and move on to something else. We come back and do a bit more of a second-reading debate, we adjourn for a committee stage, we might start a committee stage and report progress and then go on to something else. The most recent example was the Firearms Amendment Bill 2017. I think in the last sitting week that was a priority for the government. We completed the second reading on the firearms bill, but when it became apparent that there were a number of amendments from different parties in the chamber the bill was adjourned off and in fact did not even come forward on this week's agenda as part of the government's program. Presumably we will see that next year — or we may not see it next year. It highlights the disarray that we have seen in the legislative program from the government, particularly over the last six months.

The irony of starting the Oaths and Affirmations Bill today, and I absolutely accept that we are doing it today as a brief filler before we get to question time, is that this bill was a priority for the government six weeks ago. It was on the priority list back in late September or October. We did not see it then, and if we were not looking for a filler today we would not be seeing it this week. The priorities jump all over the place from week to week with no consistency as to the agenda, and as soon as questions are raised in committee or amendments are proposed, we drop a bill, move to something else and quite often never come back to the first bill.

We only need to look at the notice paper for today, which does not yet reflect the bills that were received on message yesterday; I think there were four or five additional bills which will be available. Currently we have 17 bills sitting on the notice paper, plus the four that were added yesterday. So we have now got 21 bills on the notice paper, many in varying states of disrepair. Perhaps one of the best examples of that, as we close the Parliament on 15 December this year, is bill no. 17, which is the Appropriation (2017–2018) Bill 2017, the budget bill. In my time in this place I cannot recall a government failing to pass the budget bill, but here we are closing the Parliament in mid-December with the budget bill which was supposed to give effect to the budget for 2017–18 still not being passed through this Parliament. In fact it is now parked at no. 17 on today's notice paper, at an even lower priority than the Statute Law Revision Bill 2017, and presumably the government will never get to dealing with its 2017–18 budget bill.

In fact we face the absurd situation when Parliament comes back next year, when we have the 2018–19 budget bills brought in, that we are still going to have the 2017–18 budget bill sitting on the notice paper, which is absolutely unprecedented for this Parliament in my experience and really does highlight the way in which the government has mismanaged its legislative program, if it cannot even pass its budget bill and more to the point does not even try to pass its budget bill. This is another example. We started in committee on the budget bill with Mr Jennings representing the Treasurer, and then the committee stopped one day and we never came back to it.

You can look through a number of those 19 bills which are listed which have been partially debated or partially addressed in committee and see that we have a legislative program which is largely in disarray — fragmented and all over the place. I do not think in my time in this place that I have ever seen a legislative program that has been in such disarray as the one we are concluding with today.

We have decided to commence debate on the Oaths and Affirmations Bill 2017 today. I have no doubt that we will see it adjourned off at some point today, and it will be parked and we might come back to it or we might not.

The Oaths and Affirmations Bill actually is an important piece of legislation. What it seeks to do is put in place in a dedicated act, which will become the Oaths and Affirmations Act, a statute which addresses the way in which oaths and affirmations and other declarations are made in the state of Victoria. Currently the framework for the making of oaths and affirmations and other declarations — stat decs et cetera — are spread through the statute book and do arise from practice, from common law as well as from statute. To have a consolidated act which will cover oaths, affirmations, affidavits and other instruments is an important development in statute law.

I think it is important that the house reflects on the importance of oaths and affirmations, affidavits and statutory declarations in its consideration of this legislation because the integrity of oaths and affirmations and the other instruments the bill deals with is absolutely fundamental to our justice system and is fundamental to the way in which we conduct business in Victoria. The importance of those instruments, including those oaths and affirmations, cannot be overstated. It is something that I think we as a Parliament and we as a community need to be very conscious of in our use of the taking of oaths and affirmations, which of course are the oral undertakings to essentially make a truthful statement, as well as affidavits and stat decs as written undertakings of truthful statements. Those instruments are fundamental and the accuracy of those instruments is fundamental to our judicial system and to business in this state, and their integrity is incredibly important.

Of course members of Parliament are one cohort of officers who are empowered by statute and will be by this bill to witness declarations and to take affidavits that are made here in Victoria. It is important that all members of Parliament are conscious of the responsibility they have when they witness statutory declarations and when affidavits are sworn before them. It is interesting to reflect in fact on what is required for the execution of those instruments.

For members of Parliament the signing of statutory declarations is in many respects a bread-and-butter activity. It is something that members of Parliament do on a very regular basis. In fact as it becomes more difficult for members of Victoria Police to execute instruments due to the work pressures that often exist in police stations and because the availability of honorary justices and justices of the peace in police stations can be limited — and we should reflect on the role that they play — increasingly members of the community will seek a member of Parliament to witness statutory declarations for them.

More rare for members of Parliament is having affidavits sworn before them. I recall as a very new member of Parliament actually reading up on what were the requirements of a person who was having an affidavit sworn before them. It is quite a detailed process that the person who is having the affidavit sworn before them is required to go through. In fact it is a formal swearing of an affidavit, and it is important that members of Parliament and others who have affidavits sworn before them actually do follow the correct process in the making of affidavits to ensure that their integrity can be relied upon.

A number of clauses of the bill, clauses 22 and 31, create offences for a person to take an affidavit or witness a statutory declaration if they are not authorised to do so. Clauses 36 and 37 of the bill also create the new statutory offence of making false declarations. This is a very important development. People who have stat decs signed before them, who witness statutory declarations or who operate in the framework of the legal system, the parliamentary system or even in business, are quite familiar with statutory declarations and other declaratory instruments. They are familiar that when making a statutory declaration a person is bound to make a truthful declaration and that the very essence of signing a statutory declaration or making an affidavit is that they are attesting that the statement they are making is true and correct. That is understood to mean that if a person makes a false declaration or false affidavit that that then falls within the scope of perjury.

As you move beyond the realm of the community who use those instruments regularly and those who are familiar with the legal system as it relates to evidence or the swearing of information, the understanding of the importance of declarations — the understanding of the way in which false declarations engage perjury — not surprisingly diminishes. One of the useful initiatives in this bill is the creation of a statutory offence of making a false declaration. It moves beyond the framework as we have traditionally understood it of perjury to a very specific offence that if a person signs a statutory declaration and the declaration is untrue, then that person can be found guilty of a specific offence which relates to the declaration.

We believe it is an important step to make a lower level offence, because perjury and the prosecution of perjury through the courts is a very serious matter and a very serious proceeding in our legal system. The creation of a lower level statutory offence of making a false declaration, which has a fine of 600 penalty units or five years imprisonment, is significant. It sends a very clear signal that the making of a false declaration is an offence. It offends against what is expected of a statutory declaration. The nexus between the offence and the making of a false declaration is very, very clear in a way which is not as clear in the framework for perjury currently available where false declarations are made.

The bill also seeks to update the provisions with respect to oaths and affirmations. This is something that all people who have held elected office are familiar with. Of course all members of this Parliament are required after their election to swear in this chamber an oath of allegiance to the sovereign and their heirs and successors according to law. The taking of that oath is a longstanding practice, and I think is important in that it reflects not whether a person is a republican or a monarchist but a member of Parliament's commitment to the constitutional arrangements of the state. It is very unfortunate that that oath is often framed in terms of whether a person supports a constitutional monarchy or not, when in reality the swearing of that oath or affirmation goes much more to a new member of Parliament undertaking to work within, uphold and respect the constitutional arrangements of the state, recognising that the sovereign is the titular head of the state in those constitutional arrangements.

The bill is interesting in that it updates the framework for oaths and affirmations to reflect the increasing practice of members of the community swearing affirmations — that is to say, a declaration without reliance upon a religious text. Of course in the traditional form of an oath a person does rely upon a religious text.

Business interrupted pursuant to sessional orders.

  • SHARE:
  • Email
  • Permalink