Functions of the House
The principal functions of the House, and the way in which they are expressed and carried out, can be summarised under the headings which follow. It should be realised, however, that the House frequently performs functions which cross categories. For example, in a body in which a predominance of time is devoted to debating legislation initiated by the Government, the House is performing an accountability function as well as a legislative function.
The Government—making and unmaking
It is accepted that the House of Representatives, which reflects the current opinion of the people at an election, is the appropriate House in which to determine which party or coalition of parties should form government. Thus the party or coalition of parties which commands the support of a majority in the House assumes the Government and the largest minority party (or coalition of parties) the Opposition.
A hung Parliament is said to exist when no single party or coalition of parties has a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. A minority Government can be formed when a party or coalition, not having a majority of seats in its own right, is nevertheless able to achieve a majority on the floor of the House with support from independent Members or minor parties. As was the case in the 43rd Parliament, in the formation of a minority Government the support of certain Members may be limited to specified matters, but the Government’s continuation in office necessarily requires majority support on the main appropriation bills and motions of confidence and want of confidence.
Within this framework resides the power to ‘unmake’ a Government should it not retain the confidence and support of a majority of the Members of the House. To enable a Government to stay in office and have its legislative program supported (at least in the House), it is necessary that Members of the government party or parties support the Government, perhaps not uncritically, but support it on the floor of the House on major issues. Party discipline is therefore an important factor in this aspect of the House’s functions.
A principal role of the House is to examine and criticise, where necessary, government action, with the knowledge that the Government must ultimately answer to the people for its decisions. It has been a Westminster convention and a necessary principle of responsible government that a Government defeated on the floor of the House on a major issue should resign or seek a dissolution of the House. Such a defeat would indicate prima facie that a Government had lost the confidence of the House, but there is no fixed definition of what is a matter of confidence. If a defeat took place on a major matter, modern thinking is that the Government would be entitled to seek to obtain a vote on a motion of confidence in order to test whether in fact it still had the confidence of the House. Defeat on a minor or procedural matter may be acknowledged, but not lead to further action, the Government believing that it still possessed the confidence of the House.
The Government has been defeated on the floor of the House of Representatives on a major issue on eight occasions since Federation following which either the Government resigned or the House was dissolved. The most recent cases were in 1929 (the Bruce–Page Government), 1931 (the Scullin Government), and 1941 (the Fadden Government). On 11 November 1975 immediately following the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, the newly appointed caretaker Government was defeated on a motion which expressed a want of confidence in Prime Minister Fraser and requested the Speaker to advise the Governor-General to call the majority leader (Mr Whitlam) to form a government. However, within the next hour and a half both Houses were dissolved and the resolution of the House was not acted on.
The fact that the power of the House to ‘unmake’ a Government is rarely exercised does not lessen the significance of that power. Defeat of the Government in the House has always been and still is possible. It is the ultimate sanction of the House in response to unacceptable policies and performance. In modern times, given the strength of party discipline, defeat of a Government on a major issue in the House would in normal circumstances most likely indicate a split within a party or a coalition, or in a very finely balanced House the withdrawal of key support.
For greater historical detail see ‘Motions of no confidence and censure’ in Chapter on ‘Motions’. See also ‘New Government commissioned without dissolution’ at page 12.
The initiation and consideration of legislation
Section 51 of the Constitution provides that the Parliament has the power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to specified matters. The law-making function of Parliament is one of its most basic functions. The Senate and the House have substantially similar powers in respect of legislation, and the consideration of proposed laws occupies a great deal of the time of each House. Because of the provisions of the Constitution with respect to the initiation of certain financial legislation and the fact that the majority of Ministers are Members of the House of Representatives, the great majority of bills introduced into the Parliament originate in the House of Representatives.
Any Member of the House may introduce legislation—see Chapters on ‘Legislation’, ‘Financial Legislation’ and ‘Non-government Business’.
Seeking information on and clarification of government policy
The accountability of the Government to Parliament is pursued principally through questions, in writing or without notice at Question Time, directed to Ministers concerning the administration of their departments, during debates of a general nature—for example, the Budget and Address in Reply debates—during debates on specific legislation, or by way of parliamentary committee inquiry.
The aim of parliamentary questioning and inquiry is to seek information, to bring the Government to account for its actions, and to bring into public view possible errors or failings or areas of incompetence or maladministration.
Surveillance, appraisal and criticism of government administration
Debate takes place on propositions on particular subjects, on matters of public importance, and on motions to take note of documents including those moved in relation to ministerial statements dealing with government policy or matters of ministerial responsibility. Some of the major policy debates, such as on defence, foreign affairs and the economy, take place on motions of this kind. Historically, opportunities for private Members to raise matters and initiate motions which may seek to express an opinion of the House on questions of administration were limited, but these increased significantly in 1988. In addition Members have regular opportunities to raise matters of concern during periods set aside for Members’ statements, adjournment debates and grievance debates.
It is not possible for the House to oversee every area of government policy and executive action. However the House may be seen as an essential safeguard and a corrective means over excessive, corrupt or extravagant use of executive power. From time to time the Opposition may move a specific motion expressing censure of or no confidence in the Government. If a motion of no confidence were carried, the Government would be expected to resign. A specific motion of censure of or no confidence in a particular Minister or Ministers may also be moved. The effect of carrying such a motion against a Minister may be inconclusive as far as the House is concerned as any further action would be in the hands of the Prime Minister. However a vote against the Prime Minister, depending on circumstances, would be expected to have serious consequences for the Government.
Consideration of financial proposals and examination of public accounts
In accordance with the principle of the financial initiative of the Executive, the Government has the right to initiate or move to increase appropriations and taxes, but it is for the House to make decisions on government proposals and the House has the right to make amendments which will reduce a proposed appropriation or tax or to reject a proposal. Amendments to certain financial proposals may not be made by the Senate, but it may request the House to make amendments.
The appropriation of revenue and moneys is dependent on a recommendation by the Governor-General to the House of Representatives. Traditionally the Treasurer has been a Member of the House. Reflecting this, the government front bench in the House, now commonly known as the ministerial bench, was in past times referred to as the Treasury bench.
It is the duty of the House to ensure that public money is spent in accordance with parliamentary approval and in the best interests of the taxpayer. The responsibility for scrutinising expenditure is inherent in the consideration of almost any matter which comes before the House. The most significant means by which the Government is held to account for its expenditure occurs during the consideration of the main Appropriation Bill each year. However the examination of public administration and accounts has to some extent been delegated to committees which have the means and time available for closer and more detailed scrutiny (and see below).
Inquiry by committee
The consideration of specific matters by a selected group of Members of the House is carried out by the use of standing and select committees, which is now an important activity of a modern Parliament and a principal means by which the House performs some of its functions, such as the examination of government administration. In 1987 the House took a significant step in establishing a comprehensive system of general purpose standing committees, empowered to inquire into and report upon any matter referred to them by either the House or a Minister, including any pre-legislation proposal, bill, motion, petition, vote or expenditure, other financial matter, report or document (see Chapter on ‘Parliamentary committees’).
The Public Accounts and Audit Committee, a joint statutory committee, is required to examine the accounts of the receipts and expenditure of the Commonwealth and each statement and report made by the Auditor-General. As is the case with other committees, inquiries undertaken by the committee result in the presentation of reports to the Parliament. The Public Works Committee, also a joint statutory committee, considers and reports on whether proposed public works referred to it for investigation should be approved, taking into account, inter alia, the financial aspects.
Ventilation of grievances and matters of interest or concern
The provision of opportunities for the raising by private Members of particular matters—perhaps affecting the rights and liberties of individuals, or perhaps of a more general nature—is an important function of the House. Opportunities for raising these matters occur principally during periods for private Members’ business, Members’ statements, constituency statements, grievance debates, adjournment debates, and during debates on the Budget and the Address in Reply. Outside the House Members may make personal approaches to Ministers and departments regarding matters raised by constituents or other matters on which they require advice or seek attention.
Petitions from citizens requesting action by the House may be sent directly to the Petitions Committee or via a Member. They are presented to the House by the Chair of the committee or may be presented directly by Members themselves. A copy of the petition may then be (and in practice is) referred to the appropriate Minister for a response, which is expected within 90 days. The ministerial response is also reported to the House.
Examination of delegated legislation
Regulations and other forms of subordinate legislation made by the Government pursuant to authority contained in an Act of the Parliament must be tabled in both Houses. A notice of motion for the disallowance of any such delegated legislation may be submitted to the House by any Member. Disallowance is then automatic after a certain period, unless the House determines otherwise.
Prerequisites for fulfilling functions
The exigencies of politics, the needs of the Government in terms of time, and its power of control of the House, have resulted in the evolution of a parliamentary system which reflects the fact that, while the will of the Government of the day will ultimately prevail in the House, the House consists of representatives of the people who will not hesitate to speak for the people and communities they represent. A responsible Government will keep the House informed of all major policy and administrative decisions it takes. A responsible Opposition will use every available means to ensure that it does. However, the effective functioning of the House requires a continual monitoring and review of its own operations and procedure. The forms of procedure and the way in which they are applied have an important effect on the relationship between the Government and the House. The Procedure Committee has presented reports on many aspects of the work of the House and its committees and has dealt with the issue of community involvement. It has sought to contribute to the maintenance and strengthening of the House’s capacity to perform its various functions.