By Thomas Bland
Williams [No 2] Case Page
In Williams [No 1], the plaintiff leapt over a procedural hurdle — whether he, as a parent of children who attended a school in which a chaplain was employed pursuant to the National School Chaplaincy Program, had standing to challenge the funding arrangements underlying that program. In Williams [No 2] the Commonwealth defendants, faced with Mr Williams’ second challenge to the funding arrangements, failed to surmount a different hurdle when the Court denied them leave to challenge the correctness of the Court’s decision in Williams [No 1].
In this post, I will briefly examine how the Court in Williams [No 2] dealt with the plaintiff’s standing and the Commonwealth’s ill-fated attempt to have Williams [No 1] overruled, and I will make some observations on the Court’s approach to these issues.
One of the questions reserved for the Full Court in Williams [No 2] was whether the plaintiff had standing to bring the challenge to s 32B of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 (Cth). The Commonwealth conceded in its written submissions that, ‘in light of the position taken by the [intervening States]’, the plaintiff had standing. The Court accepted this concession and answered the question thus: ‘[I]n the circumstances of this case, and to the extent necessary for the determination of this matter, yes’ (at ). (The Court explained the reasons for the qualified answer, but they are irrelevant for present purposes.)
The Commonwealth’s concession was doubtless informed by the Court’s holding on the plaintiff’s standing in Williams [No 1]. Given that counsel for the Commonwealth (as discussed further below) went on to challenge the substantive holdings in Williams [No 1], it is perhaps unsurprising that they conceded the standing point. If the Court held that the plaintiff lacked standing, the Commonwealth’s opportunity to have Williams [No 1] overruled would not arise. However, the Court’s holding on standing in Williams [No 1] arguably signals a departure from its previous practice. It is worth considering whether this is so, and if so, what this might mean for future litigants. Continue reading
By Professor Cheryl Saunders
Williams [No 2] Case Page
Williams [No 2] does not add a great deal of substance to the conclusions about the ambit of the executive power of the Commonwealth reached in Williams [No 1]. The principal question for the Court was the validity of the legislation that had been enacted in the wake of Williams [No 1], to provide a loose statutory base for the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program (NSCSWP) and more than 400 other executive spending programs. The reasoning of the Court on the issues raised by this question is dealt with elsewhere in the symposium. In brief, the six sitting Justices, in two separate judgements, rejected arguments that either the benefits to students power (s 51(xxiiiA)) or the corporations power (s 51(xx)) provided a head of power for the legislation in relation to the NSCSWP. The Court did not need to determine whether the covering provisions in the Appropriation Acts provided the necessary legislative base for executive spending programs, because similar questions about a head of power arose: . Nor did it need to reach the more novel question of whether the challenged legislation involved a delegation of legislative power that was so excessive or vague that it transgressed the Constitution in some other way: .
The ambit of federal executive power nevertheless was in issue in Williams [No 2], not least because the Commonwealth sought to reopen Williams [No 1] (for this argument, see ). In place of the majority holding in Williams [No 1], the Commonwealth argued for an understanding of s 61 that identified minimal limitations on the ability of the Executive to contract and spend: . Alternatively, if the executive power also was limited by subject matter, the Commonwealth argued that federal power to contract and spend ‘extends to all those matters that are reasonably capable as being seen of national benefit or concern; that is, all those matters that befit the national government of the federation, as discerned from the text and structure of the Constitution’: . Had either argument succeeded, the legislation might have been upheld as an exercise of s 51(xxxix) in combination with s 61 or even ss 81 and 83. Indeed, on the basis of the first argument, at least, there would have been no need for legislation at all. Both, however, were rejected, as arguments that, effectively, had been tried and had failed before (, ). Williams [No 1] was not reopened and the majority holding stands. Continue reading