The (official) Opposition
The Opposition is the party or group which has the greatest number of non-government Members in the House of Representatives. It is organised as a body with the officially recognised function of opposing the Government. The party (or sometimes coalition of parties) is recognised as the ‘alternative Government’—that is, the body which would form the Government, with its leader as Prime Minister, if the existing Government were to lose the confidence of the House or the people. The concept of ‘alternative Government’ is very relevant in Australia. Every Opposition can realistically hope, eventually, to form government, and every Government knows that, sooner or later, it is likely to again be in opposition.
The Opposition is an important component in the structure of the House and is considered to be essential for the proper working of democratic government and the parliamentary process in the Westminster system.
The recognition of ‘Her Majesty’s Opposition’ in Britain is believed to have originated in the early 19th century. Essentially the term is based on the constitutional convention that, in the parliamentary system, the Crown recognises that Her Majesty’s Government exists, for the time being, as the preference of the House over Her Majesty’s Opposition.
In the period of the 2nd and 3rd Parliaments between 1904 and 1910, the Governor-General looked to the non-government groups (parties) for the formation of the Government on five separate occasions. During the circumstances of the frequent rearrangement of alliances in this period, the acknowledged concept of the Leader of the Opposition being commissioned to form the Government did not necessarily prevail because he may have lacked sufficient support to maintain Government.
In more recent times with the development and stability of the party structure, the division between Government and Opposition has become clear and constant. The nature of Australia’s party system and the existing electoral system has historically produced an almost total absence of representation of minor parties in the House of Representatives.
On 7 October 1941 following the defeat on a vote and the consequent resignation of the Fadden (Country Party–United Australia Party) Government, the Governor-General called on Leader of the Opposition Curtin to form a Government. On 11 November 1975 following the dismissal of the Whitlam (Australian Labor Party) Government, the Governor-General asked Leader of the Opposition Fraser to form a ‘caretaker’ Government.
When the Opposition consists of more than one party opposed to the Government, and the parties prefer to remain distinct, the single party having the largest number of members is recognised as the ‘official Opposition’. If the official Opposition is not clear by virtue of numbers, it is for the Speaker to decide which group shall be so called, and who will be recognised by the Chair as the Leader of the Opposition.
During the period of the Australian Labor Party Government between 1972 and 1975 the Opposition was composed of the Liberal Party and the National Country Party. During the 28th Parliament (1973 and 1974), the Leader and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition together with the Shadow Ministry came from the Liberal Party. In the 29th Parliament (1974 and 1975), a ‘coalition’ Opposition was formed and, while the offices of Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition remained with the Liberal Party, the Shadow Ministry was composed of Members from both parties. Following the return of the Labor Party Government in 1983, the Liberal Party–National Party coalition Opposition again shared shadow ministry positions. This also occurred following the election of the Labor Government in 2007.
Leader of the Opposition
The House took no official cognisance in its records of the appointment of a Leader of the Opposition prior to 1920, even though the role of the office was firmly established. The position had no constitutional base and was not recognised by the standing orders.
In 1920 the office was statutorily recognised for the purposes of the payment of an allowance. Since then the status of the office has risen as reflected by the recognition of the duties of the office by way of remuneration and resources, and the Leader of the Opposition has been remunerated at a rate above that for the majority of Ministers. The Leader of the Opposition is placed tenth in the Commonwealth Table of Precedence.
It was not until 1931 that the office was recognised in the standing orders, when the Leader of the Opposition was granted special rights with regard to speech time limits in specific instances. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition is also recognised in the standing orders with ex officio membership of the Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests.
It is the practice of the House for the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader to receive a degree of special latitude or preference from the Chair by virtue of their offices with respect to:
- receiving the call of the Chair in preference over other non-government Members, particularly in asking questions without notice; and
- indulgence of the Chair in order to explain or clarify matters before the House or to make a personal explanation.
The special role played by the Leader of the Opposition has been recognised in the following comments made in reports by independent inquiries into the parliamentary salary structure:
A Leader of the Opposition is an essential figure in parliamentary government. In most English-speaking countries he receives a salary in addition to his salary as a private member. In Canada his salary is the same as that of a Cabinet Minister. His duties are arduous, for he has to be prepared to discuss every Bill introduced by the Government, subject to his right of delegation, and to do this he has not the power to call on departmental officers for information or assistance. His responsibility is not equal to that of the Prime Minister but it is a responsibility to his Party, to the country which he informs and which he aspires to lead. His entertainment expenses are less but are by no means negligible, for overseas visitors frequently wish to interview one whom they regard as the possible head of a government.
An effective Opposition is essential for the proper functioning of a democracy. Its Leader has possibly the most difficult job in the Parliament. A Minister must, of course, be thoroughly conversant with the details of Bills or other matters which affect his own department, but the advice and resources of the departmental staff are constantly at his call. The Leader of the Opposition has to make himself master of all the business which comes before the House (not merely that of one or two departments); he has to do this at times at short notice and under constant pressure; and he gets no help from permanent officials. At all times he is the spokesman for those who are critical of or opposed to the Government, and he must be unceasingly vigilant and active. He and the Prime Minister should be the most powerful agents in guiding and forming public opinion on issues of policy.
The Leader of the Opposition leads a group of Members, elected by the party or nominated by the leader, which is known as the Opposition Executive or the Shadow Ministry or the Shadow Cabinet. In past years the Opposition Executive was less than the number of Ministers but at the beginning of the 35th Parliament consisted of a total of 30 members in both Houses, making the Shadow Ministry the same size as the Ministry. Since then the Shadow Ministry has had at times more members than the Ministry itself. After the routine appointment of Parliamentary Secretaries in 1990 the opposition parties designated certain of their members ‘parliamentary secretaries’ to shadow ministers. Again, at times there have been more shadow parliamentary secretaries than Parliamentary Secretaries. In the 40th Parliament there were 32 shadow ministers and 13 shadow parliamentary secretaries.
Each shadow minister covers the responsibilities of one or possibly more Ministers or areas of administration and acts as the opposition spokesperson in respect of his or her designated areas. The positions of shadow minister and shadow parliamentary secretary attract no additional remuneration. As potential Ministers, shadow ministers attract closer public and media scrutiny than other private Members. Because of the politically sensitive nature of their positions, for example, allegations of impropriety may cause them to stand down from the Shadow Ministry while matters are under investigation.
As with Cabinet, which is assisted by a system of standing committees and government members’ party committees, the Opposition Executive has a system of opposition members’ committees to develop attitudes to government policy and to develop alternative policies for presentation to the Parliament.
A senior and experienced member of the Opposition Executive is appointed Manager of Opposition Business with the responsibility, in consultation with his or her leaders and colleagues, of regularly consulting and negotiating with the Leader of the House in relation to such matters as the allocation of time for debates, and the order and priority of consideration of items of busi83ss (see page 65). In recent Parliaments a Deputy Manager of Opposition Business has also been appointed.
Role of the Opposition
A primary function of the whole House, through its role of scrutiny and criticism, is to exercise an oversight of the actions of the Government. In modern times the Opposition has a critical role in this and, thus, the functions of the Opposition have become identified and linked with the role and more important functions of the House. These functions include:
- unmaking the Government—the Opposition, by definition, seeks to defeat a Government or cause a Government to resign. Theoretically, it could be said that an Opposition endeavours to achieve this by persuading government supporters to accept its viewpoint but, in reality, it looks to a general election for defeat of the Government and endeavours to achieve this by public persuasion;
- scrutiny of, criticism of, and suggestion of improvements to, legislation and financial proposals;
- examination of expenditure and public accounts;
- seeking information on and clarification of government policy (principally questions in writing and without notice);
- surveillance, appraisal and criticism of government administration;
- ventilating grievances; and
- examination of delegated legislation.
While all private Members are to some extent involved in such functions as petitions, grievances, questions, and participation in committee work, the effective performance of the functions listed above is largely dependent on a vigilant, industrious and organised Opposition. Members supporting the Government are able to play an effective part in this parliamentary process but the Opposition may be expected to do so and to articulate, for example, the views of various groups within the community.
While government business dominates the agenda and the time of the House, the Opposition has the opportunity to express its views on all issues debated. The procedures of the House are based on the unquestioned premise that government and non-government Members have a claim to equal speaking time in debates and that the call of the chair to speak (or to ask questions) should alternate between government and non-government Members. In addition, the Opposition is not without opportunity to initiate debate on subjects of its own choosing. Most discussions of matters of public importance are on topics proposed by the Opposition. Opposition Members may use the private Members’ business procedures and the other opportunities to raise matters which are open to all private Members. The Opposition is also able to move censure motions or to move to suspend standing orders to debate matters. Outside the Chamber of the House, opposition Members serve on all committees and their views are taken account of in the committees’ reports.
Fair, democratic and efficient parliamentary government calls for:
- the provision of reasonable parliamentary time for opposition purposes;
- the protection of the rights of minorities in the House by the Speaker;
- the provision of information and resources (to reduce the wide gap in information availability between Government and Opposition); and
- the provision of procedural advice and drafting assistance when necessary.
There are two points relating to the role of the Opposition which require qualification. First, there is normally a good deal of co-operation between the parties in dealing with business, and in arranging the program of the House, so that good use is made of the time available. Secondly, its role is not only one of criticism but, at times, it also offers agreement, assistance or improvements to the actions and policies of the Government in the interests of the people and the nation. Nevertheless, despite this very necessary qualification, there is more than a grain of truth in the proposition that ‘We rely for good government, not on the wisdom and probity of the House, but on the adversary relationship between the Government and the Opposition’.