Chapter 2 The reforms – an overview
The Agreement for a Better Parliament: Parliamentary Reform (the
Agreement) that was entered into following the uncertain result of the general
election of August 2010 triggered a range of procedural reforms in the 43rd
Parliament. On the second day of the Parliament many of the reforms were
implemented formally, through amendments to standing orders, adoption of a
sessional order, and a resolution of the House. Some changes were less formal and could be
accommodated as matters of practice or simply as being within the discretion of
This chapter outlines the reforms and their implementation. The
Committee does not provide detail: that was a major component in its first
report. Rather, this chapter
provides an overview of the reforms to introduce the analysis in the following
chapters. In these later chapters the Committee assesses the effectiveness of
the reforms—after almost two years of operation—in meeting their objective.
After discussing the objective of the reforms, the chapter considers the
- the role of the
- the Selection
- Question Time;
- opportunities for
- the House committee
- consideration of
- other procedural
The objective of the reforms
The Agreement was based on twin principles—confirming each of the 150
Members of the House as the ‘foundation blocks’ of Australian democracy, and
increasing the authority of the Parliament in its relationship with the
Executive—and its stated objective
was to ‘increase the authority and opportunities for participation for all
When proposing the amendments to standing orders to reflect the
Agreement, the Leader of the House, described the package of amendments in
It represents a transfer of power and influence in this place
from a concentration in the executive, to bring a focus on the contribution
that the 150 members of the House of Representatives can make.
The following paragraphs outline the various changes and their
Role of the Speaker
The second clause of the Agreement referred to an ‘Independent Speaker’,
asserting the independence of the Speaker’s role from Government, and the power
of the Speaker to enforce the standing orders. The impartiality and powers of
the Speaker in enforcing standing orders, conventions and behavioural standards
has long been considered crucial to the effective operation of the House.
Unlike Speakers of the United Kingdom House of Commons, the Speaker of
the House has usually retained his or her party affiliation after election as
Speaker. Nevertheless, Speakers have generally been regarded as striving to
maintain their independence and impartiality in enforcing the rules of the
House. ‘This [practice] provides a Speaker who is politically affiliated but
who is required to be impartial in the Chair, rather than a Speaker who is both
independent and seen to be independent.’
The Agreement proposed that the Speaker and Deputy Speaker be drawn from
different political parties and that they not attend their respective party
room meetings. It also proposed that the Speaker, Deputy Speaker, and Members
of the Speaker’s Panel—when occupying the chair—be paired for divisions.
These proposals were not taken up in amendments to standing orders and the
provision on pairing has not been implemented: it was the matter of extensive
public debate and doubt was raised about the constitutionality of any formal
A House Selection Committee has operated, traditionally, to determine
the order of business for committee and delegation reports and private Members’
business on sitting Mondays. However, in the 42nd
Parliament, the Government and Opposition Whips took on this responsibility in
their own right, although still guided by standing orders.
In line with the greater emphasis on private Members’ participation, the
Agreement proposed the re-establishment of a Selection Committee, with
significantly wider powers than previously. ‘New’ standing order 222
implements this intention. The Speaker chairs the
Committee which comprises: the Speaker, or in his/her absence the Deputy
Speaker, the Chief Government Whip or their nominee, the Chief Opposition Whip
or their nominee, the Third Party Whip or their nominee, three government
Members, two opposition Members and two non-aligned Members.
As well as determining the order of committee and delegation and private
Members’ business, the Committee can now recommend items of private Members’
business to be voted on, refer bills to relevant standing or joint committees
for further consideration, and set speaking times for second reading debates.
A bill may be referred to a committee on the recommendation of one member of
the Selection Committee.
Question Time plays an important role in the House’s ability to
scrutinise Executive Government but, for many years, its
effectiveness has been questioned and its combative nature criticised. The
Leader of the House recognised these difficulties:
Question time is the public face of the parliament and is
often the Australian community’s only perception of the workings of parliament.
The adversarial nature of question time has thereby contributed to a perception
that parliament is purely combative. The government is committed to ensuring
that question time portrays a more balanced view of the workings of the
The Agreement proposed measures to address these issues and improve the
content and conduct of Question Time. Time limits were placed on both questions
(45 seconds) and answers (4 minutes); answers were required to
be ‘directly relevant’ to questions (rather than the
previous requirement of ‘relevant’); and the Speaker was urged to rigorously apply
existing standing order provisions on the content of questions.
Additionally, points of order on relevance were limited to one per
question and the use of notes was
discouraged. The Agreement suggested
that Question Time conclude no later than 3.30pm, ‘enabling 20 questions each
day in the normal course of events’.
In February 2012, the standing orders were amended to reduce the time
limits to 30 seconds for questions and 3 minutes for answers, thus allowing
question time to conclude by approximately 3.10pm.
The Agreement also proposed that the Leader of the Opposition or their
delegate be permitted to ask one supplementary question each Question Time.
However, as this Committee commented in a previous report, the opportunity to
ask supplementary questions already existed in the standing orders although it
had not been used since 1998.
Standing order 101(b) states that the Speaker may allow supplementary
questions at his/her discretion. On 20 October 2010 the
then Speaker, Mr Jenkins, set out his views:
… they need not be asked by the member who has asked the
original question and may be asked either by the Leader of the Opposition or a
member who appears to have been delegated by the Leader of the Opposition to
ask the question, and I note that a supplementary question may be asked by a
member other than the member who has asked the original question in a number of
other jurisdictions; they should not contain any preamble, and they must arise
out of, and refer to, the answer that has been given to the original question.
In February 2012 the new Speaker, the Hon Peter Slipper, clarified the
practice he would follow. He proposed to allow five supplementary questions and
impose time limits of 20 seconds for questions and 1 and a half minutes for
To increase the opportunity for all Members to participate in Question
Time, the Agreement proposed a proportionate allocation of questions to
non-aligned Members. In November 2010, the
Leader of the House indicated that the government would facilitate this:
During each question time, after five questions have been
asked and answered, the call would ordinarily be given to a government member
to ask the sixth question. In order to ensure that the commitment in the
agreement is implemented in full, if at that point—that is, after the fifth
question—a non-aligned member rises to seek the call, the Chief Government Whip
has asked that no government member seek the call.
Opportunities for private Members
Time for private Members’ business
The major aim of the reforms was to increase opportunities for private
Members to participate in the House.
The Agreement proposed that the time for private Members’ business on Mondays
in the Chamber be increased from 1 hour to 3 hours and 45 minutes and in the
Federation Chamber from 35 minutes to 2 and a half hours.
The amended standing orders implementing the reforms increased the hours even
further so that 3 and a half hours have been allocated in the Chamber and 5
hours in the Federation Chamber.
Voting on private Members’ bills
The opportunity for private Members to introduce bills into the House
has always existed. However, due to the prioritisation of Government business
it has proved difficult for private Members to have proposed legislation
debated and voted on. The Agreement proposed that
time be allocated during Government Business time in the Chamber for private
Members’ bills to be voted on. The Leader of the House
has been facilitating this proposal in practice by moving regularly to suspend
standing orders to enable private Members’ bills to be called on and voted on
during Government business time, in accordance with recommendations of the
This reform has lifted the profile of private Members’ bills and their
Other opportunities for private Members
Apart from increased time for private Members’ business, the reforms
have substantially increased other opportunities for private Members to
participate in the work of the House, and to raise and debate matters of their
Traditionally time has been allocated for Members to discuss Matters of
Public Importance (MPI) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays following
Question Time and after the presentation of documents and ministerial
statements. In the previous
Parliament up to one hour was available for MPIs. Under the Agreement, the time
was set at 1 and a half hours, and the MPI was to directly follow Question Time
to provide greater prominence for the discussion. The Agreement also provided that
a ‘proportionate share of Matters of Public Importance be allocated to all
Members’ 90 second statements had originally taken place in the House on
Mondays for 15 minutes before Question Time. In the 42nd
Parliament this period was moved to the Federation Chamber and took place on Monday
evenings. The Agreement proposed
that 15 minutes be allocated in the Chamber prior to Question Time every
sitting day for 90 second statements.
The adjournment debate at the end of a sitting day has long been seen as
an opportunity for private Members to raise issues of concern to them: it is
exempt from the customary requirement for relevance to the question before the
House. Under the Agreement,
time for the adjournment debate in the Chamber was to be extended (from thirty
minutes) to one hour on Monday and Tuesdays. The amended standing orders facilitated
this, and also provided for a one hour adjournment debate on Wednesdays.
The House committee system
The parliamentary committee system enables private Members to focus on
particular issues of current interest, improving their understanding of issues
and facilitating public participation in the legislative process.
House of Representatives committees have enjoyed a reputation for bipartisan
and cooperative work. They enable Members to have direct input into policy
development and play a significant
role in scrutinising government administration.
In June 2010 this Committee inquired into the House committee system and
made a number of recommendations. The changes to the
committee system that were proposed in the Agreement reflected some of these
recommendations and included:
- a reduction in the
number of general purpose committees from 12 to nine; and
- a reduction in
membership from 10 permanent members to seven.
The Agreement also provided for a maximum of four supplementary members (increased
from two in previous parliaments) to be appointed to a committee for the
purposes of an inquiry with full participatory rights, other than voting.
This would be expected to enable Members who wish to participate in a
particular inquiry to do so.
The Agreement proposed that the Chair of the Joint Committee of Public
Accounts and Audit be either a non-Government or a non-aligned Member.
This reform was augmented on implementation, with the amended standing orders also
providing that the Chair of the Standing Committee on Regional Australia need
not be a Government Member.
Traditionally, committee Chairs have been able to speak in the House about
committee work only when presenting committee reports.
However, the Agreement proposed that committee Chairs be able to make short
statements during private Members’ business time, to inform the House of new
inquiries. Now provided for in the standing orders, these additional statements
by Chairs or Deputy Chairs are significant opportunities for committees to
raise awareness of their work, to attract contributions to their inquiries and
so, possibly, to strengthen their inquiry processes and reports.
As mentioned in paragraph 2.12, the Agreement proposed the Selection
Committee have the power to refer bills it considers controversial, or
requiring consultation etc., to committees to ensure greater scrutiny of
proposed legislation. The effect of this
change will be considered further in chapter 5.
In its report on the committee system in June 2010, the Committee
expressed concern over the often lengthy delay in government responses to
committee reports. Although the Agreement
did not take up the Committee’s recommendation on this issue in full, it did
require the government to respond to committee reports within six months and
provided a mechanism for greater ministerial accountability if this deadline
was not met. The corresponding resolution
proposed by the Leader of the House and adopted by the House on 29 September
2010 stated that, if a government response was not delivered within six months
of the tabling of a committee report, the relevant Minister would:
- present a signed
statement to the House stating the reasons for the delay; and
- make themselves
available to the committee at their request to answer questioning regarding the
If a dispute arises between a committee and the government over the
delay in a response, provision was made for the issue to be referred to the
Auditor-General to assist in resolving the matter.
Consideration of bills
The Agreement proposed that the time limit for speakers during the
second reading debate be reduced from 20 to 15 minutes.
This reform was introduced through amendments to standing order 1 and applied
the 15 minute limit to all Members excepting the mover and the main Opposition
speaker, on government bills; or to the mover and the main Government/Opposition
speakers on private Members’ bills.
The Selection Committee could further reduce the speaking time allocated
to each Member if the bill was not considered controversial by the Committee.
The Selection Committee could also limit speaking times, by agreement, when a
large number of Members wished to speak on a bill to enable as many Members as
possible to participate. These proposals were
implemented by standing order 222(a)(iv), which simply provides that the
Selection Committee may, subject to standing order 1, ‘set speaking times for
second reading debates’.
Questions during second reading debate
This Committee recommended in 2006 that time be allocated for questions
during second reading speeches. The stated intention was
to facilitate more meaningful debate on bills. This recommendation was
reflected in the Agreement which proposed that the Speaker and the Selection
Committee consider and potentially ‘trial’ allowing five minutes for questions
at the end of Members’ second reading speeches.
The proposal was subsequently implemented through sessional order 142A
which allows for each Member who has made a second reading speech on a
government bill to then be questioned for up to five minutes (30 seconds for a
question, 2 minutes for the answer). However, the Member is not
obliged to take questions and the standing order does not apply to a Minister’s
speech or speech in reply, or to the main Opposition speaker’s speech on a bill.
So far, this opportunity to question Members has not been taken up.
Other procedural reforms
Acknowledgement of country
The Agreement proposed that an ‘acknowledgement of country’ be
incorporated into the daily opening proceedings of the House.
This formally demonstrates the House’s respect for traditional owners of the
land on which it meets.
Repeating a division
The Agreement proposed that the standing orders be amended to allow for
a vote to be repeated, following a suspension of standing orders, if a Member
accidentally missed a division in the House. Previously a division
could only be repeated if confusion had occurred over the numbers reported by
The Government sought to implement this, along with the other amendments
proposed on 29 September 2010, but proposed that ‘the House divide again’
rather than that the repeated division occur after a successful suspension of
standing orders. The Opposition successfully
moved an amendment that would require the suspension of standing orders.
As the Committee explained in a previous report, this has the potential to
make a repeated vote difficult to achieve:
The amendment had the effect that in order to recommit a vote
which could be passed by a simple majority in the House, there must first be a
suspension of standing orders which, when moved without notice, can only be
carried by an absolute majority (currently 76 votes). That is, the votes
required to recommit a vote may be greater than the numbers required to pass
the vote, when the vote is retaken.
The Agreement also included proposals for non-procedural reforms aimed
at ensuring adequate resourcing to support parliamentary functions, increased
transparency and accountability and enhanced parliamentary standards.
A number of proposals in the Agreement directly relate to the resourcing
of the Parliament, and particularly the House of Representatives, including:
- the establishment of
a Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO);
- a review of staffing
levels within the House of Representatives Committee Office and the
Parliamentary Library; and
- the establishment of
a House Committee on Appropriations and Staffing.
Under the Agreement a PBO was to be set up to provide independent
financial analysis of policy costings to all Members of Parliament. A Select
Committee of the House of Representatives was to be established to determine
the structure, resourcing and protocols for the intended PBO.
The Joint Select Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office was established in
November 2010 and presented its report on 23 March 2011.
The PBO was subsequently established with the passing of the Parliamentary
Service Amendment (Parliamentary Budget Officer) Act 2011 in December 2011
and the Parliamentary Budget Officer appointed on 23 May 2012.
In its report into the committee system, this Committee expressed
concern over levels of funding and resourcing for the House of Representatives Committee
Office. The Agreement proposed
that the Speaker arrange an external review of the staffing levels of the Committee
Office aimed at determining the resourcing levels required to ensure continued
adequate support for the House committee system.
To address broader budgetary concerns, the Committee also recommended in
its 2010 report on the committee system the establishment of a House Committee
on Appropriations and Staffing. The Agreement, in
effect, proposed that this recommendation be implemented in its entirety,
requiring that the Appropriations and Staffing Committee be chaired by the
Speaker and determine budgetary estimates for the House of Representatives.
Standing order 222A established the House Appropriations and
Administration Committee, with the responsibilities set down in the Agreement.
Additionally the Liaison Committee of Chairs and Deputy Chairs was to report
to the Appropriations and Staffing Committee on committee activities and
Enhancing parliamentary standards
The Agreement also addressed issues regarding parliamentary standards,
proposing that a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner be appointed to advise Members
on a range of ethical matters. The Commissioner would
also be responsible for upholding a proposed formal Code of Conduct for Members
of the House and Senate. On 23 November 2010, on
the motion of the Leader of the House, the House referred to the Standing
Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests an inquiry into a code of
conduct for Members of Parliament. The terms of reference included
consideration of the role of a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner.
On 23 November 2011 the Privileges and Members’ Interests Committee
reported to the House. That Committee decided to present the work of the
inquiry as a discussion paper rather than a report. The discussion paper
considers various aspects of a code of conduct including:
- the nature of a
proposed code and a process for its implementation;
- the role of a
possible Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner in relation to a code;
- possible procedures
for receiving and investigating complaints under a code;
- the role a House
committee could play in oversighting a code and the handling of complaints; and
- possible sanctions
that could be imposed for breaches of a code and processes in the House for
dealing with reports or complaints and imposing sanctions.
In this chapter the Committee has outlined the principal reforms to the
operation of the House and the nature of their implementation. In the following
chapters it considers their impact.