Interesting times in UK and Australia for constitutional geeks
11 May 2011
The Westminster model of government is likely to get a bit of a shake-up as a consequence of developments this week.
In Britain the Speech from the Throne referred to three constitutional items; Lords reform, Scottish independence and changing the rules of succession. Changes to the House of Lords is the most dramatic and could lead to a breakdown between the coalition partners. There is a lot of resistance among Conservative MPs. Issues include – the powers of the Lords, the proportion of elected members, the electoral system, the proposed 15 year non-renewable terms, and keeping bishops in the Lords.
The UK and Scottish governments will soon start negotiating about an independence referendum. The UK government wants there to be a single question, just on independence; the Scots want a second question, on full devolution.
Another issue relates to succession to the throne, affecting countries where the Queen is head of state. The male primogeniture rule and the discrimination against Catholics are to be resolved.
In Australia, new guidelines issued this week by the Information Commission show that the Freedom of Information Act applies to Commonwealth parliamentary departments. This was not anticipated. Previously the interpretation has been that – as in New Zealand – Parliamentary agencies are not subject to the information release provision. The guidelines continue the exemption on the Budget Office.
“ Three of the Commonwealth Parliamentary departments (the Department of the House of Representatives, the Department of the Senate and the Department of Parliamentary Services) are subject to the FOI Act because they were established by, or in accordance with, s 54 of the Parliamentary Service Act 1999 and they have not been exempted. The fourth Commonwealth Parliamentary department, the Parliamentary Budget Office, is exempted because it is expressly deemed not to be a prescribed authority…”
Where the disclosure in New Zealand of MPs’ travel and expenses was a consequence of a direction from the Speaker, the equivalent information in Australia will now be available by law.