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Chapter 3 Strengthening the parliament: increased participation by all Members

3.1                   The two underlying principles of the Agreement for a Better Parliament: Parliamentary Reform (the Agreement)—reinforcing the identity of ‘local MPs’ and their communities in our democratic system and strengthening parliament by enhancing opportunities for all Members to participate[1]— are being adopted partly through an increase in the time for and prominence of private Members’ business. The Agreement seeks to achieve this by:

3.2                   This chapter presents preliminary data on the allocation and use of the additional opportunities for private Members and addresses the need to balance these opportunities with the need to allocate sufficient time for government business. Based on feedback and data from the early stages of the 43rd Parliament, the Committee draws attention to aspects it believes warrant close monitoring. These will be considered further in Chapter 5.

More opportunities for contributions by private Members

3.3                   Increased participation by Members has primarily been achieved by changes to the order of business in the House and Main Committee (considered below), and an increase in sitting hours (considered in more detail in Chapter 5). The order of business now provides additional:

3.4                   In total, the maximum time available under the standing orders[6] for participation by private Members[7] in the House and Main Committee[8] has increased from 10 hours and 20 minutes in the 42nd Parliament to 19 hours and 45 minutes in the 43rd Parliament, with the largest increase in private Members’ business.

Allocated time for private Members’ business

3.5                   In the 42nd Parliament, on Monday evenings, the time for private Members’ business comprised 1 hour in the House and 1 hour 35 minutes in the Main Committee.[9] Eight and a half hours is now available on Mondays (3 and a half hours in the House and 5 hours in the Main Committee).[10]

3.6                   As in previous parliaments, time for private Members’ business is shared with other non-government business, including up to 10 minutes for presentation of petitions and responses by the Petitions Committee Chair, and time for committee and delegation business.

3.7                   As proposed in the Agreement, a Selection Committee was (re)established to select and schedule items of non-government business, including private Members’ business.[11]

The Selection Committee and private Members’ business

3.8                   Standing order 222 prescribes the composition, powers and responsibilities of the Selection Committee.[12] Its three main roles are to:

3.9                   The Committee may also determine speaking times for second reading debates on private Members’ bills.[13] If a second reading motion is agreed to, further consideration of the bill is accorded priority over other private Members’ business and the Committee may determine times for consideration of the remaining stages.[14]

3.10               As anticipated, following its establishment the Selection Committee has been refining its practices and procedures. It meets each sitting Tuesday (primarily to schedule committee and delegation and private Members’ business for the next sitting Monday) and Wednesday (primarily to consider bills for referral to committees). The Committee reports its determinations and recommendations to the House on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It has adopted general principles to guide its allocation of priorities regarding private Members’ business.[15] These include the importance of the subject, the level of interest, and the extent of discussion on the subject in the parliament and elsewhere.

Private Members’ motions and bills

3.11               Data for the early stages of the 43rd Parliament show how the additional time allocated for private Members’ business has been used. As at 4 March 2011, Members have lodged 116 items of private Members’ business on the Notice Paper (101 motions and 15 private Members’ bills).[16]

3.12               69 of the 101 private Members’ motions were lodged by government Members, 25 by opposition Members and seven by non-aligned Members.

3.13               Of the seven private Members’ motions lodged by non-aligned Members, five were lodged by the Greens Member and two by Independents.

3.14               Of the 101 private Members’ motions, 59 were debated, comprising 38 from government Members, 19 from opposition Members and two from non-aligned Members. Fifteen were voted on[17]: two from government Members, 12 from opposition Members and one from a non-aligned Member.

3.15               Of the 150 Members in the House, 48 contributed to the 101 private Members’ motions lodged. Twenty-five Members lodged one motion each and the remaining 76 motions were shared across 23 Members.

3.16               In the first sitting period of the previous (42nd) parliament, only 10 private Members’ motions were debated: five from government Members and five from opposition Members. None were put to a vote.

3.17               Of the 15 private Members’ bills lodged in the 43rd Parliament (as at 3 March 2011), 14 were introduced in the House: 5 by non-aligned Members, 7 by shadow Ministers and 2 by the Leader of the Opposition. At 4 March, the Selection Committee had recommended 6 of these be voted on, and 2 others be referred to a House standing committee for further consideration. Of the 6 private Members’ bills recommended for voting on, 2 were passed, 3 were negatived and 1 was still before the House. The Committee notes that the bill which was still before the House was discharged on 24 March 2011 after a bill with similar objectives was introduced by the Attorney-General. Both the Attorney-General and the Leader of the Opposition acknowledged the constructive cooperation which had achieved this outcome.[18]

3.18               In the first sitting period of the previous (42nd) parliament only one private Member’s bill was introduced, but did not proceed beyond the first reading. In previous parliaments, private Members’ bills were only occasionally debated and even then, usually not voted on. Historically, very few private Members’ bills have been passed by the House.[19]

Committee comment

3.19               There are mixed views as to whether the extent of the increase in time available to private Members was necessary, and some Members have questioned whether the additional time is being used effectively.

3.20               Informal feedback from the non-aligned Members indicated a variety of views and some were strongly in favour of retaining the increased private Members’ time.

3.21               Feedback from government and opposition Members overwhelmingly indicated that the increase in time allocated to private Members’ business was excessive. The issue of the allocation of time is covered in Chapter 5.

3.22               There was a perception that, in some cases, motions were proposed to fill the long periods allocated for private Members’ business. Yet, some Members were concerned that there were occasionally private Members’ motions and bills they wished to speak to, but could not, because there was not sufficient time allocated for that particular item.

3.23               A number of Members also found that five minutes (often the period of time allocated by the Selection Committee) was not enough time to speak to private Members’ items. Therefore, there may be instances where the time allocated for a debate for a particular item and, within that, the speaking times, do not take into account the significance of the topics under discussion.

3.24               There may be value in encouraging a reduction in the number of motions that are proposed, thereby enabling a greater number of speakers to debate fewer motions and possibly to speak for longer to them. The Selection Committee’s general principles allow for this.[20]

3.25               The Selection Committee’s principles and broad mandate under standing order 222 would enable it to address these concerns and exercise greater flexibility in the time it allocates to debates on items of private Members’ business and to the speaking times it allows.

3.26               The Committee notes that the Selection Committee does make some variation in the length of debate but it may be worth considering greater flexibility.

Recommendation 1

3.27

The Committee recommends that the Selection Committee be encouraged to implement the ‘General principles relating to the selection of private Members’ business’ and exercise the flexibility that is available to it pursuant to standing order 222 and the principles, particularly in relation to the length of debates and speaking times allocated.

3.28               The Selection Committee’s report of 21 October 2010 recommended that the general principles endorsed by the Selection Committee relating to the selection of private Members’ business be adopted by the House.[21]

3.29               The standing orders used to provide (prior to 2003) that items of private Members’ business be selected in accordance with general principles adopted by the House[22] and the Committee would be pleased if this provision were reinstated. This might assist the Selection Committee in applying the principles.

Recommendation 2

3.30

The Committee recommends that the House take up the Selection Committee’s recommendation that it consider adopting the ‘General principles relating to the selection of private Members’ business’ (contained in Report No. 3 of the Selection Committee of 21 October 2010).

3.31               The Selection Committee determines which items of private Members’ business are to be voted on, but it does not schedule the votes (which are taken in government business time, necessitating an initial suspension of standing orders to enable the inclusion of private Members’ business, and placing scheduling responsibility with the government).[23]

3.32               This issue warrants monitoring. One option would be to schedule votes on items of private Members’ motions and bills during private Members’ business (as was considered during negotiations on the Agreement).[24] Consideration might also be given to listing the items of private Members’ business to be voted on in the Notice Paper.[25]

3.33               The Committee deals with the overall allocation of time for private Members’ business in the context of the emerging issues discussed in Chapter 5.

Other opportunities for private Members

3.34               Additional opportunities for private Members to raise matters of their choice include:

3.35               Reforms in the 43rd Parliament have included changes to some of these opportunities—discussed below.

Adjournment debates

3.36               In a typical sitting week the time for adjournment debates in the House has increased from 2 hours in the 42nd Parliament to 3 and a half hours in the 43rd Parliament.[29] In the first four-week sitting period of the 42nd Parliament there were 17 adjournment debates and 101 speakers, averaging 25.3 speakers per week, compared to the first five-week period of the 43rd Parliament when there were 21 adjournment debates and 214 speakers, averaging 42.8 speakers per week.[30]

Members’ 90 second statements and three minute constituency statements

3.37               In the 43rd Parliament, Members’ 90 second statements have been moved to the House, taking place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, in the 15 minutes before Question Time.[31] A total of 134 statements were made in the first five sitting weeks. Members have made full use of the time.

3.38               The move back to the Chamber and the new timeslot expose the issues to a wider audience and provide a dynamic lead-in to Question Time.

3.39               Members continue to raise a range of issues during three minute constituency statements in the Main Committee on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. (The Agreement did not effect a change to this.)

Matters of Public Importance

3.40               Discussion on Matters of Public Importance (MPIs) provides opportunities for debate on a topical issue and is usually proposed by a non-government Member. In the previous parliament up to one hour was available for the MPI, following Question Time, presentation of documents, and Ministerial statements, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Now, the MPI is discussed following Question Time and the presentation of documents, and the maximum time has been increased to one and a half hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (the time on Thursdays remaining in effect unchanged).[32]

3.41               To date in the 43rd Parliament 25 MPIs have been discussed.[33] Twenty-four have been proposed by the opposition with roughly equal number of speakers from the government and opposition. So far no MPI has been proposed by a non-aligned Member.[34]

3.42               The average time taken for discussion on an MPI in the first sitting period of the 43rd Parliament was 1 hour and 8 minutes. For the equivalent period in the 42nd Parliament the average time was 52 minutes.

The balance between private Members’ business and government business and the nature of legislative debate

3.43               The proportion of time spent on private Members’ motions and bills in the first sitting period of the 43rd Parliament was more than double the equivalent time in the 42nd Parliament, increasing from 8% to 17%.

3.44               Increased participation of all Members is central to the Agreement, however, it is also vital to operations of the parliament and the government, that adequate time is available to transact the business of government, which for the most part is government legislation. There has been a small decrease in the proportion of time allocated to government business, although data show that the total time spent on government business has increased slightly. During the first five sitting weeks of the 43rd Parliament an average of 19 hours and 32 minutes per week was committed in the House and Main Committee to government business and 63 government bills were presented to the House. For the equivalent period in the 42nd Parliament, the average time spent on government business in the House and Main Committee was 18 hours and 50 minutes. During the first four sitting weeks of the 42nd Parliament 50 government bills were presented to the House.

3.45               The passage of legislation is necessarily a time-consuming process and some observers have described debates on legislation as lengthy and uninteresting.[35] The Agreement includes proposals to make debate on legislation more efficient, lively and interactive.[36]

3.46               Standing orders have now reduced maximum speaking times on bills for most Members from 20 minutes to 15 minutes.[37] The Selection Committee may further reduce speaking times to 5 or 10 minutes when many Members wish to speak—although it has not yet done so. A sessional order which allows up to 5 minutes for questions and answers at the end of second reading speeches has been introduced[38] but to date no Member has used it.

Committee comment

3.47               A stated aim of the Agreement is to increase the authority of the parliament—relative to the executive—by increasing opportunities for participation by all Members. Initial indications are that the increased time for private Members’ business has provided Members with additional opportunities. An illustration of the effectiveness of the reforms was the first successful passage of a private Member’s bill originating in the House since 1999.[39] A second private Member’s bill has also been passed by the House and is currently before the Senate.[40]

3.48               The question arises as to whether there is adequate time to deal with government business. Although the allocation of time for private Members’ business is generous compared to earlier parliaments, initial indications are that this does not appear to have compromised the ability to deal effectively with government business. This may be due to a number of factors, including the increased sitting hours (considered in Chapter 5), and reduced speaking times for debate during the second reading stage of bills. There may be potential for greater efficiencies, particularly if the Selection Committee reduces speaking times when opportunities arise, however, having not observed this in practice, the Committee is not in a position to comment.

3.49               With regard to time limits for speeches, the Committee acknowledges the following comments made on 21 October 2010 by the Selection Committee, noting apparent inconsistencies in standing orders:

The [Selection] Committee reports that, in setting times for the second reading and debate on the two private Members’ bills, the committee was constrained, by standing order 222 (a) (iv) and standing order 1, from setting speaking times of 10 minutes per speaker for all speakers on the bill, including the mover and the Member representing the Prime Minister. The committee notes, however, that, under standing order 222 (c), the committee may determine the times allotted for each member speaking in private Members’ business debates.

The [Selection] Committee suggests that the Procedure Committee, in monitoring and reviewing the procedural reforms implemented for the 43rd Parliament, consider proposing amendment of the standing orders to enable the Selection Committee the flexibility to set lesser speaking times for the mover of the second reading and the lead speaker for the Government or the Opposition, for private Members’ bills.[41]

3.50               This is discussed in more detail in Chapter 5 which considers early observations on the need to fine-tune standing orders to address anomalies and to enhance the implementation of reforms to better meet the objectives of the Agreement.

3.51               While there is scope for greater efficiencies, based on initial observations, the Committee is cautiously optimistic that reduced speaking times and increased opportunities for committee scrutiny of bills (discussed further in Chapter 4) have improved the House’s capacity to effectively manage the legislative process. However, the Committee is less optimistic about the changes intended to encourage more interactive debate. No Members have yet relied on sessional order 142A and asked questions at the end of second reading speeches. The Committee encourages Members to take up this opportunity to enliven debate.

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