Dr Mark Rodrigues, Politics and Public Administration Section
Adversarial politics is a well entrenched feature of Australian parliamentary democracy. Strict party discipline over the behavior of MPs has challenged conventions of responsible government and aided the ascendency of the executive over the agenda of parliament. Decades of majority government have shaped the rules of parliamentary procedure (the Standing Orders of each House) in a manner that limits opportunities for non-government MPs to hold the government to account. However, the small but growing presence of minor party and independent MPs has called into question the two-party winner-take-all culture of politics. The potential for reforming procedure is much broader where no single party holds a majority. Independent MPs have secured some significant parliamentary reforms working with state minority governments. The wide-ranging reforms negotiated between political parties, independents and the Greens following the 2010 federal election have potential to change the relationship between the parliament and the executive.
Question Time in the House of Representatives is often criticised for declining parliamentary standards and accountability. Oppositions are inclined to use partisan attacks disguised as questions to embarrass the government to which Ministers respond with lengthy answers of marginal relevance. Ministers often use Question Time to attack the opposition with pre-prepared statements in response to ‘Dorothy Dix’ questions from their own side. Much of the theatre of Question Time is characterised by disorder contrived to make the evening news. Proposals to reform Question Time include enabling supplementary questions, imposing time limits on answers, and requiring answers to be relevant to questions. Other areas for reform include the allocation of questions, the treatment of points of order and the use of prepared statements.
The independence of the Speaker
Part of the role of the Speaker is to ensure that the proceedings of the House are conducted in accordance with relevant rules, conventions and standards of behavior. While Speakers have strived to carry out their duties impartially, the position is normally filled by a government MP and often drawn into partisan conflict when ruling against points of order from the opposition. It has been proposed that the authority and independence of the Speaker be enhanced by requiring that the Speaker and Deputy Speaker are drawn from different parties, that they both abstain from party room meetings, and when one is in the Chair, the other abstain from voting in divisions. Members of the Speakers Panel, when acting as Chair, could similarly have their vote ‘paired’ with an abstention from their opposing party, so as to maintain the relative voting strength of each party in the House.
The committee system
Committees have to some extent counteracted a perceived decline in parliamentary standards by facilitating cross-party cooperation on policy development and scrutinising the detail of government activities. Other key functions of committees include reviewing policy, facilitating public participation in the legislative process and making recommendations. Areas for improvement in the committee systems include the independence of committees, the often slow response by government to committee reports, and the tendency of the government to withhold important information from committees on the grounds that disclosure would be against the ‘public interest’.
Proposals for reforming the House of Representatives Committee system include rationalising the size and number of committees, enabling them to determine their own inquires (rather than undertaking inquiries at the request of Ministers) and requiring timely government responses. It has also been proposed that controversial legislation be referred to committees for inquiry and consultation prior to their introduction in the lower House. The issue of encouraging greater transparency from government has been a particular matter of contention for Senate committees. Proposals to address the lack of cooperation from the government in providing information to committees include referring individual instances to the Information Commissioner for arbitration.
Support for budget scrutiny
Non-government MPs are particularly disadvantaged in their access to independent high quality analysis and advice on government expenditure. Internationally, many parliaments have created specialist units to undertake economic forecasting, policy costing and expert financial analysis. The parliamentary reform package includes a plan to establish a Parliamentary Budget Office within the Parliamentary Library. Key questions concerning the new Office include its level of resourcing, ability to access government information and the range of services it will provide. These matters are likely to be considered by a parliamentary committee.
Currently, the funding for the general operation of parliament is determined through the government’s own budget processes. The proposal to establish a House Committee on Appropriations and Staffing (similar to the existing Senate committee) has the potential to improve the financial autonomy of the parliament. The role of the new committee includes estimating the funding required by the House of Representatives and reporting to the House, the Speaker and ultimately the government. Another major proposed reform is to establish a code of conduct for senators and members and a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner to oversee the code, advise parliamentarians on ethical issues and report on parliamentary entitlements. Other proposals for reform include increasing the time allocated for the business of Private Members (MPs other than Ministers, the Speaker/President and Parliamentary Secretaries), increasing the number of sitting days, and reducing the time allocated for members to speak on Bills.
Possible reforms excluded from the current package of measures include further asserting the independence of committees by enabling more to be Chaired by non-government members and encouraging more ‘conscience votes’ so that MPs are not compelled to vote on party lines. There is also a broader category of parliamentary reform that requires constitutional amendment. This category includes the grounds for the disqualification of MPs, fixed four-year terms and the process for resolving deadlocks between the Houses over contentious legislation.
In sum, the package of measures negotiated will likely lead to an increase in committee activity, scrutiny of government and private members bills. The increased participation of non-government MPs will certainly act as a further brake, or check, on the progress of the government’s agenda through parliament. It may be that some of the reforms might need revision due to the increased parliamentary work required. The key to implementing these reforms and making them work lies in the attitude and behavior of individual MPs, political parties and the government.
Library publications and key documents
Australian Labor Party and the Independent Members Oakeshott and Windsor, Agreement, 7 September 2010, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22library%2Fjrnart%2F218795%22
Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens, Agreement, 1 September 2010, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22library%2Fjrnart%2F218794%22
J Gillard and A Wilkie, Agreement, 2 September 2010, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22library%2Fjrnart%2F218796%22
R Laing, ‘Parliamentary reform: options and pitfalls’, 31 August 2010, http://parlinfo/parlInfo/download/library/jrnart/64987/upload_binary/64987.pdf;fileType=application/pdf#search=%22Laing%20Parliamentary%20reform%20options%20and%20pitfalls%20%20|%20EBSCO,AAP%22