Chapter 7: The other roles of lower houses

Bagehot thought that the House of Commons, in addition to its functions of choosing the executive government and passing legislation, had four other roles: an expressive function, expressing the mind of the people ‘in characteristic words the characteristic heart of the nation’; a training function, so that the people are ‘forced to hear two sides’; a function of informing the government; and a scrutiny and review function, ‘watching and checking’ government ministers.

Parliaments are not usually very effective these days in expressing ‘the characteristic heart of the nation’. The trouble is that the media, particularly television, tend to give undue prominence to dissenters, and only the most innocuous resolutions are likely to be unanimous. It is true that there are occasions when, in an almost mystical way, the parliament becomes the centre of pent-up national feeling on some crucial issue, and the MPs feel they are before the bar of history. But such occasions are rare.

Parliaments have had more success with the ‘training’ function. The adversarial system of parliamentary debate is admirably suited to presenting at least two sides of every controversial question, but how well this gets through to ‘the people’ depends on the news media, which have been revolutionised since Bagehot’s day. Moreover, the relevant ‘people’ who are to hear and presumably judge the two sides are far more numerous and more disparate. Television has become the main source of political information, and the moulder of political opinions. The two sides of complex political questions are sometimes presented on television, not always by political leaders, but the main effect of television has been to trivialise complex political problems.

Most of the parliaments we are examining have moved to permit the televising or radio broadcasting of parts of their meetings, but these have not always been successful in explaining complex issues to the voters, or indeed in improving the image of parliament. The serious press, unable to match the immediacy of television news, has moved increasingly to commentaries and background reporting rather than proceedings in parliament as the basis of articles. In any case newspapers are much less influential with the mass of voters than is television.

The function of keeping the government informed of current political opinion in the community is on the whole done well. Governments are, if anything, deluged with too much information, from opinion polls, deputations and by-elections, so that they find it difficult to keep their resolution, and to be leaders not followers of public opinion. MPs certainly contribute their share of political information to the government, through meetings of their parliamentary parties and its committees, through representations to ministers, through questions and speeches in the House, and by organising petitions.

A modern MP would be surprised that Bagehot made no real mention of a member pursuing fair treatment or assistance for constituents. This is one of the most time-consuming tasks of an MP, and one which some MPs take very seriously, partly out of a sense of duty and partly to encourage voter support. In the UK, perhaps 10 per cent of the public at some time contacts a local MP for help, and ministers receive 10 000 letters a month from MPs. If the MP is dissatisfied with the minister’s answer the matter can be pursued in the House. In 1990 the Public Information Office of the Canadian House of Commons received 50 000 requests for information assistance, and a majority of these were passed on to MPs’ offices.

An even more significant role which has emerged since Bagehot’s time arises from the fact that lower houses, unless there is a minority government or one with a very small majority, have largely lost their role of choosing the government, except immediately after an election, and even that is not put to a vote. The development of the party system has caused the real choosing-power to be taken away from the parliament and given to the voters. As a consequence many of the activities of MPs in the parliament are devoted to campaigning for the next election.

This post-Bagehot role, of using the parliament as an electoral campaign area, has come to dominate proceedings. The government is naturally anxious to put its decisions in the best light, so as to retain the confidence of the party and the voters. The opposition, as the alternative government, is constantly seeking to expose the deficiencies of the government, and to suggest that it would handle things rather better. When, and whether, the opposition reveals alternative programs to the parliament is a matter of tactical timing and the performance of the government.

The campaign for the next election usually starts as soon as the parliament meets after the previous election. Although they all have other purposes as well, question time, motions and private members’ bills are all directed towards the next election. The intermediaries are the media. From the point of view of the continuing election campaign, a brilliant speech or a devastating question is of little value unless it is reported in the media, for very few people read Hansard. Of course a good performance by a backbencher will improve his standing in his parliamentary party and he can usually arrange to have it reported in the local newspaper. But most elections are won by national swings, not by local efforts.

There is much criticism in America of the length of modern presidential election campaigns, which last five months. With responsible government, the election campaign lasts the entire life of the Parliament, usually several years. The formal campaign, lasting for a few weeks after the dissolution of the Parliament, usually has only a relatively minor effect on the election result, unless one of the party leaders makes a serious mistake.

Committees of inquiry

The performance by the various lower houses of Bagehot’s fourth function-‘watching and checking’ ministers-exemplifies the impossible task these houses face, in circumstances of tight party discipline, in trying to combine the watching and checking role with that of being an electoral college. It is not that the houses lack the necessary powers. They can oblige ministers to give oral or written answers to questions concerning their administration; they can set up committees to investigate the performance of ministers and their departments; they can pass motions of censure on individual ministers; and they can reduce the appropriations for departments which are performing unsatisfactorily.

The difficulty is that these formidable powers are mostly theoretical. Committees of inquiry-which may be set up for the life of a parliament, or established to investigate a particular problem-are an excellent means of probing government administration, but they rarely probe very deeply. All four of the national parliaments have set up ‘subject’ or ‘departmental’ committees in their lower houses to monitor particular government departments and their ministers, but their performance varies. They work best at Westminster, where the opposition has a fair share of committee chairs and the committees can initiate their own investigations, and worst in New Zealand, where the committees are distracted from their investigative role by the demands of hearings on bills. But even where the committees work best, their effectiveness is severely limited by the pressures of party discipline. The committees do some valuable work in investigating problems which do not involve rigid party positions or threaten ministerial reputations, but governments normally use their party strength to head off more intrusive investigations.

On the rare occasions when a committee does conduct an investigation which is opposed by the minister concerned-which are of course usually the matters which should be investigated-the minister has another line of defence: executive privilege can be invoked to avoid the answering of embarrassing questions. The privileges of the Australian Parliament were codified in 1987, but the codification does not really help in dealing with recalcitrant government witnesses before parliamentary committees. Certainly a witness who, without reasonable excuse, refuses to answer a relevant question may be sentenced by the House to up to six months imprisonment or a substantial fine, but the power is really unusable. Would not a direction by the minister to a public servant not to answer particular questions be ‘a reasonable excuse’ for the public servant? As far as a minister is concerned, under the current system there is no way a House committee would reject a claim of executive privilege for refusing to answer a question or for directing a public servant not to do so. Minor parties or Independents, with no hope of being in government, might advocate such action, but it would be resisted both by the members of the government party and by the opposition (the alternative government). The opposition would have no desire to set such a dangerous precedent for their future governments.

Even when a committee reports adversely on the performance of a minister, nothing may follow. Committee reports are not usually debated extensively in any of the lower houses. Except with a minority government, party discipline will prevent the passage of a censure motion on a minister, while the obvious solution of refusing or reducing expenditure on an unacceptable program would be resisted on party lines, being treated as a vote of confidence in the government.

‘Departmental’ or ‘subject’ committees

If the crucial role of monitoring the actions of government departments and non-departmental agencies is to be performed effectively, the only effective weapon for the parliament is to set up a system of supervising committees to do the task for it. All of the national parliaments have done so, the numbers ranging from fifteen in the UK to thirteen in New Zealand, 25 in Canada and eight in Australia. The New Zealand committees are the only ones which also regularly consider bills, though the Canadian and Australian committees occasionally do so.

United Kingdom

In 1979 the UK House of Commons set up fourteen departmentally-related select committees, though the move was opposed both by the Conservative government and the preceding Labour government. The vote was nevertheless 248 to twelve in favour of setting up the committees. These committees differed from the standing committees considering bills, for the membership was for the lifetime of a parliament. Most of the committees have eleven members, but two have as many as seventeen. Their role is to ‘examine the expenditure, administration and policy in the principal government departments ... and associated public bodies.’ They have been a reasonable success. They meet regularly, usually once a week. The committees are reasonably well staffed, and they are entitled to engage specialist advisers, such as distinguished economists. They call for evidence from the public, and hear oral evidence if they want to. They have the power to compel witnesses to attend, with the threat of a contempt of parliament charge to encourage the reluctant.

Probably the most successful has been the Treasury Committee, which has conducted budget reviews, investigations into the management of the economy and supply matters, and into the organisation and efficiency of the civil service. The committees achieve a high degree of unanimity, except for highly partisan inquiries, such as the one into the Falklands War, though some committees achieve consensus by avoiding controversial issues. The party composition of select committees reflects that in the House, so committees normally have a government majority. Committees choose their own chairs. The departmental committees have accepted the distribution of the chairs between parties as agreed by the whips, but have exercised their own judgement as regards individuals. By 1997 the number of departmental select committees had increased to seventeen.

Support for the committees is provided from the staff of the House of Commons. The smallest committees may have a clerk and two support staff, while the largest may have two clerks, two specialist assistants and two senior support staff. In addition to these staffs, the committees make liberal use of their power to appoint specialist advisers. By the standard of other parliaments the staff levels are generous, though outsiders are sometimes surprised that they are not bigger, in view of the complex tasks they may have to undertake. This view is not generally shared by MPs, who feel that if the staffs became larger the inquiries would become staff driven rather than member driven.

Ministers and civil servants are clearly influenced by the knowledge that their policy decisions may come under public scrutiny. There are problems, though. Scrutiny of nationalised industries is much less systematic than it was before 1979, because the new structure involved the elimination of the old Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. Some of the committees, such as Energy, look seriously at the nationalised industries, but others show little interest. Committee reports are often not debated in the House, or if they are, they tend to be debated late at night or on a Friday, when the House is sparsely attended. The committees determine their own agenda, and as a result tend to focus on politically interesting happenings rather than on departmental objectives and methods, but this is probably inevitable, politicians being politicians. The reports are usually unanimous, but this is achieved by the committees steering clear of subjects which are divisive between the parties, which of course means the escape of many subjects which should be investigated.

The UK Parliament also considers actions by the European Union which would affect them, although the UK Parliament has no direct control over EU legislation. A Select Committee on European Legislation looks at every draft piece of legislation it receives and recommends which ones should be further considered. The select committee has two standing committees, dealing with different EU matters; one deals with environment, transport, agriculture and the Forestry Commission, while the other deals with everything else. These committees debate the references they receive from the select committee, rather than the debates taking place in the House, as was done before 1991.


Canada has a problem with its parliamentary committees, for they can never meet the expectations of the public. This is because of the proximity of the United States, where committees wield enormous power in the Congress. The average Canadian voter does not really grasp the different democratic systems in the two countries, and does not understand that the behaviour of committees of the US Congress would be quite incompatible with a system of responsible government.

Since 1867 the Canadian House of Commons has had a system of standing committees. On the second day of its first session, the House of Commons appointed ten ‘select standing’ committees, on privilege and elections, expiring laws, railways, canals and telegraph lines, miscellaneous private bills, standing orders, printing, contingencies, public accounts, banking and commerce, and immigration and colonisation, but few of them were effective. There was a radical reform of the system under the Trudeau administration in 1968, when the size of each committee was reduced to twenty members and they were permitted to sit while the House was sitting and to appoint sub-committees.

It was also arranged that the estimates would be referred to the appropriate standing committee, as were most bills after being given a second reading. It was hoped that the committees would be informed and non-partisan, but these hopes were not realised, and the defects were exacerbated by the whips organising frequent membership substitutions in order to keep their parties’ voting strength up, which was found to be necessary despite the reduction in size of the committees. There was a rapid turnover of committee chairmen (always provided by the government party) as a result of promotions to the ministry or to a parliamentary secretaryship. Committees sat for only a standard 90 minute period, and the chairmen generally did not provide leadership, preferring to allow each member in turn ten minutes for questions, which inevitably led to a great deal of muddle and repetition. Although some committees did good work, the general standard was not high. ‘There is no continuous attendance’, complained one witness, ‘people come and go out of the room and members obviously aren’t familiar with the subjects. We arrive with a presentation that has involved a great deal of preparation and nobody knows what we are talking about.’[65]

Parliamentary inquiries were set up in 1982 and 1984 to try to solve these problems. Substantial changes were made. The number of standing committees was increased to 25 so as to match the number of government departments, the number of MPs on each committee was reduced, ideally to seven members, and the staffing and budgetary arrangements were improved. Separate ad hoc legislation committees were set up to deal with bills, though later changes returned some bills to the standing committees. The standing committees could initiate their own inquiries without seeking the approval of the House of Commons, and could review but not block non-judicial order-in-council appointments. Parliamentary secretaries, who had previously kept watching briefs on behalf of the government, were excluded from the committees. The government could be requested to make a comprehensive reply to a committee report.

More changes were made in the 1990s. The number of committees was reduced slightly, and the size of the committees increased so that the larger number of parties in the House could have representation; parliamentary secretaries were again permitted to sit on the committees. The concept of special legislative committees to deal with bills was abandoned, and bills were referred to the standing committees. But there are still nineteen standing committees of the House of Commons and three joint standing committees of the Senate. Most of the committees have eleven to fourteen members, and the government party has difficulty filling all the places. The government party could normally expect something like 160 MPs in the 301-seat House of Commons, and about 60 of these would not be available to sit because of ministerial or other responsibilities. Government party MPs are often expected to serve on two, three or even four committees.

The results of the committee investigations have been inconclusive. Some of the committees have been prepared to criticise government policy, or at least the advice the government received from the bureaucracy, but most are still party dominated. The old problems have reappeared, with committee reports being curtly rejected by ministers, government party MPs preventing committees from meeting by refusing a quorum, and chairs and committee members who are embarrassing the government being swiftly removed.


The Australian House of Representatives in 1987 set up eight general purpose standing committees, all departmentally related, the first comprehensive system since federation. They are showing the same qualities and defects as the similar committees in the UK House of Commons, although the Australian committees cannot initiate their own inquiries, but must have a reference from the House or the minister (which in practice amounts to the same thing). They are always chaired by a government party member, and have a government party majority.

There are also a number of joint committees (that is, having members from both houses)-Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; Public Works; Public Accounts and Audit; National Crime Authority; Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings; Corporations and Securities; Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund; Migration; National Capital and External Territories; Treaties; and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation-as well as several more dealing with domestic matters in Parliament House.

New Zealand

The New Zealand Parliament has long had a system of select committees and since 1979 virtually all bills have been referred to them. The committees were reduced from nineteen to thirteen and organised on a ‘subject’ basis in 1985. Because the New Zealand committees consider nearly all bills, most of them have little time or resources available for inquiries. In a 1989 assessment, six of the thirteen select committees were found to be spending 85 to 90 per cent of their time on legislation. The problem of finding time for inquiries into government activities is exacerbated because the select committees also have to consider petitions and the estimates of their government departments. It is not surprising that in the four years from 1987 to 1990 the select committees produced only 26 reports between them, and eight of these came from the Regulations Review Committee, which is not one of the thirteen ‘subject’ committees. There were only three reports on state-owned enterprises. In a small parliament such as New Zealand’s, and with limited support staff for the committees, it is difficult to see how the committees can combine the tasks of detailed examination of legislation and the scrutiny of the actions of government departments and instrumentalities. One or the other has to give.

Problems of committee investigations

All these committees do valuable work, but they share two weaknesses. First of all, their tasks are set either by the House (usually at the request of the committee) or by the committee itself. In both the government usually has the majority. Governments are unlikely to agree willingly to inquiries into matters they do not want inquired into, which are of course often the matters which should be looked into. Nevertheless, governments sometimes have to agree to such inquiries to avoid intra party dissension. The extent to which committee members bow to the wishes of their party leaders depends on their individual integrity and the strength of party discipline. In Britain the government has apparently made little attempt to direct committee activities; in Australia, on the other hand, proposed committee references are normally cleared with party caucuses. In Canada and New Zealand a committee may initiate its own inquiries within its area of responsibility, but as a committee nearly always has a government majority the usefulness of this power is limited, though there have been examples of committees pushing ahead with inquiries despite ministerial misgiving.

It is important that the committees concentrate on inquiries which cannot be effectively performed by anyone else, particularly the monitoring of government administration. Parliamentary inquiries into major policy problems may be more effective (and certainly cheaper) than royal commissions, but they must not be allowed to be done at the expense of the watchdog role over government administration and legislation. There is a limit to how many parliamentary committee inquiries can be undertaken, and the smaller the parliament the greater the problem. Canada, with twice as many members as the Australian Parliament and three times the New Zealand number, has problems in providing enough government party MPs for its committees, and the situation is of course worse in the smaller parliaments.

Of course some ministers may be attracted by the idea of tying up a committee in some massive inquiry, so as to keep that committee off their back, but committees should fight against being manipulated in this way.

The second weakness is that the support made available to a committee is not always adequate for the task. MPs perform a key function on these committees, examining witnesses and discussing issues, but the effectiveness of a committee depends heavily on the size and quality of its support staff. There are no complaints about the level of committee assistance in the UK, for a typical committee staff would have five or six members, with additional outside expert assistance being provided as necessary. In Canada the staff of the House of Commons provides a clerk for each committee, some outside staff can be hired, and the parliamentary library assists with research staff. In Australia the standard full-time secretariat is five, comprising a committee secretary, two research officers and two administrative assistants, and a committee is normally permitted to employ one or more specialist advisers. New Zealand committees have to operate with a staff of two. For comparison, a standing committee of the US House of Representatives can expect a support staff of up to 30, though it must be acknowledged that these committees have an additional role as initiators of legislation.

The position in all the countries except the UK is that the government decides what resources are to be made available for parliamentary scrutiny of its activities, for there can be no expenditure without Cabinet approval, and Cabinets, to put it mildly, do not tend to be generous in this area. It seems that the UK Parliament is the only body at all likely to stand up to Cabinet on the issue. There is a House of Commons Commission, chaired by the Speaker; the Leader of the House is the only minister on the commission. The leader of the opposition nominates a member and there are three backbench members. The Commission’s main duties are to prepare the estimates for running the House services, and to employ the permanent staff, who number nearly 1000. The estimates are not subject to Treasury limits, and if challenged by the government there would almost certainly be enough cross voters to ensure their passage.

The situation in the other parliaments could be compared, with some exaggeration, to that of a burglars’ collective having the power to decide what resources are to be made available to the police. An Australian finance minister, Peter Walsh, put the position bluntly: ‘I explicitly do not accept the proposition’, he told the Senate in 1985, ‘that the parliament determines how much money the parliament will get. The executive government has the financial responsibility, and in the end the executive government will determine that question.’

It can be seen that these committees, though undoubtedly useful, are far from sufficient. The committees in the Australian House of Representatives have a unique weakness. They can be assigned investigative tasks directly by ministers, so they are in fact working for the executive. The concept of responsibility could scarcely have a more blatant reversal.

Public accounts committees

In nearly all the parliaments the most prestigious scrutiny body is the Public Accounts Committee, which has a different name in some parliaments. These committees are long-established. The oldest, established in 1861,[66] is at Westminster, and the youngest, established in 1988, very belatedly and after much resistance from the National Party government, is in Queensland. The PAC usually investigates questionable aspects of government expenditure raised by the Auditor-General. The committees are reasonably staffed, and their reports are taken seriously.

In Victoria in 1997 the autocratic Liberal premier, apparently offended by criticisms by the Auditor-General of the efficiency of some government programs, sharply restricted his powers by privatising his audit functions. This virtually destroyed efficiency audits of government programs, and caused considerable concern in the community. It was a significant factor in the surprise Liberal election loss in 1999. The powers of the Auditor-General were restored by the incoming Labor government.

What was also disturbing was that the necessary legislation to restrict the Auditor-General’s powers was passed by the two houses on party lines, and no government party member was prepared to stand up and vote against the elimination of an important source of information for the legislature in its scrutiny of government activities. This was despite the fact that the Auditor-General should be responsible to the parliament not to the government.

Question time

All the parliaments we are considering have a period each sitting day when ministers may be questioned on their performance. The UK Parliament is the prototype, and its question time procedure is broadly followed in New Zealand. Canada and Australia, both federally and in the states and provinces, give much less notice of questions to ministers, their systems deriving from the procedures in use in the House of Commons at the time their political systems were developing.

United Kingdom

The first recorded parliamentary question occurred in the House of Commons in 1721, when the prime minister was asked to confirm that a key figure in the financial hoax called the South Sea Bubble had fled abroad and had been arrested in Brussels. There were undoubtedly other questions asked in the House of Commons in the eighteenth century, but regular questioning of ministers by other MPs did not emerge until after the First Reform Act in 1832. By 1844 questions were sufficiently established for the first edition of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice to cite them as exceptions to the rule that an MP must always speak to a motion before the chamber. By the 1850s a regular time in the parliamentary day was set aside for questions, which were without formal notice, though it was customary for a minister to be orally informed of an intended question. The system broke down in the 1880s, when the Irish MPs became more than usually obstreperous, and written notice of all questions was thereafter required.

In the House of Commons ministers are now available on a roster basis for oral questioning from Monday to Thursday of each sitting week. The roster is decided by the government in consultation with the opposition. By the standards of other parliaments, ministers are not really very available. The minister of a major department is available for questioning only every three or four weeks, and the minor departments (Attorney-Generals, say) have a short time on Mondays. The prime minister is the real target, and until 1997 could be questioned every sitting Tuesday and Thursday for fifteen minutes. Tony Blair changed this, and the prime minister may now be questioned for one 30 minute period each sitting week.

Questions for oral answer must be in writing, must be about something for which the minister is responsible, and must ask for information or press for action. The order in which questions are asked is decided by lot. When the number of a question is read by the Speaker, the minister gives a prepared answer, and then stands by for the real questioning. The Speaker allows supplementary questions entirely at his or her discretion, though the questions must be relevant to the issue raised. There is always a supplementary question allowed to the originator, and if there is little interest in the matter, that may be all. If there is interest, the Speaker may allow half-a-dozen further questions on the subject, taken alternately from the two sides of the House. An average of 70 questions (including supplementaries) is asked during the one hour question period.

The procedure is different for the prime minister. Because of the dominant role of the prime minister, questions may be asked on any aspect of government activity (or inactivity). Typically a bland question is asked (what engagements does the prime minister have next Friday?) and then the supplementary questions start, often with the leader of the opposition taking a prominent part, raising issues of current political importance. The questions from the opposition are almost always without notice, although often predictable. Questions from the government side are usually foreshadowed. The involvement of major political figures, and the impromptu nature of the session, make this usually the liveliest part of the parliamentary day.

New Zealand

The oral questions to be asked are determined by the party leadership, and ministers are given notice, varying from a few hours for the first six questions, which are supposed to be ‘questions of the day’, to 48 hours notice for the remainder. Any minister, including the prime minister, may be questioned on any sitting day. Forty-five minutes are allowed for questions each sitting day, and on average twenty are asked each day. The Speaker calls the questions, in the pre-arranged order, alternately from the two sides of the House. Contrary to the Westminster procedure, the MP reads out his question, sometimes wasting a lot of time. (The questions are read so that radio and TV audiences can understand what is going on; the MPs in the chamber have the questions in front of them.) As at Westminster, the minister reads his prepared reply, and the Speaker permits supplementary questions. The Speaker offers the questioner the first chance of a supplementary question, and then members from alternate sides of the House. Only occasionally does the Speaker permit more than three supplementary questions.

There is also a category called urgent questions, dealing with important events which, it is claimed, should be explained to the Parliament before a question handled in the ordinary way could be asked. If the Speaker accepts a proposed question as urgent, it is answered at the end of question time. The minister may have had only brief warning of the question.


In 1968 the Canadian Parliament made an attempt to follow one aspect of the Westminster pattern, when Prime Minister Trudeau introduced a roster system for ministers, to avoid the wasteful practice of a minister being briefed each day on a wide range of issues, and then not receiving a question. The change was not popular, and was quietly dropped in 1973 as being incompatible with responsible government. Now all ministers are available for questioning each sitting day. The questions are without notice, and the Speaker usually allows supplementary questions. The Speaker normally gives the first call to the leader of the opposition and then to the leaders of the other non-government parties. After that the call is given to members of the non-government parties, usually following lists prepared by the various whips. Government backbenchers are rarely called, and when they are the opposition is resentful, for question time is deliberately designed as an opportunity for the opposition. Ministerial answers are much more relevant and succinct than in the Australian Parliament, and an average of 40 questions (including supplementaries) is asked each sitting day, three times as many as in the Australian House of Representatives. If an MP is not satisfied with an answer, he may raise it again in the adjournment debate, and the minister or his parliamentary secretary will be there to deal with it.

The Canadian provinces

Question time in the provinces is generally similar to that in Ottawa, though New Brunswick has had some special problems, because from 1987 until 1991 there was no opposition. In order to inject some life into question period, the leaders of the registered political parties who were not represented in the Parliament were given the opportunity to ask questions of ministers after the ordinary question period was over. They asked their questions through the Speaker from behind the bar. Only the New Democratic Party used this opportunity on a regular basis. The Progressive Conservatives refused to use it, and the Confederation of Regions Party (an anti-bilingualism party) appeared only occasionally.


There has been a question time in the federal Parliament since its first session in 1901. The Speaker, who had been premier and treasurer in the South Australian Parliament, was asked whether there should be daily period of questioning ministers without notice. The Speaker replied that ‘there is no direct provision in our standing orders for the asking of questions without notice, but, as there is no prohibition of the practice, if a question is asked without notice and the Minister to whom it is addressed chooses to answer it, I do not think that I should object.’[67]

This attitude that ministers should not be obliged to answer questions has continued to the present day, and has done great damage to question time, particularly as the procedure has been copied by the states. This departure from the principles of the Westminster system cannot possibly be justified.

In the Australian House of Representatives all questions are described as being without notice, although in fact a government party backbencher who asked a minister a difficult question without warning would be very unpopular. The Speaker calls questions from alternate sides of the House, following lists provided by the whips. Occasionally there are ‘free’ days when the whips do not provide lists, and the Speaker gives preference to members who have not asked many questions. On these days backbenchers have a chance to air their local problems or ride their hobby-horses, but such days are few. There are no supplementary questions at all. Question time lasts 45 minutes each sitting day, and on average fewer than twelve questions are asked, but not necessarily answered. Some Labor Party ministers, notably Paul Keating, took to handling parliamentary questions in the same way as questions are handled in meetings of militant trade unions-if there is an unwelcome question the motives and the intelligence, and possibly the parentage, of the questioner are attacked, but the question is not answered. To show how unsatisfactory the Australian question time is, it should be noted that in the Canadian House of Commons 40 questions are usually asked in the 45 minute question time, while at Westminster the average is 70 questions in an hour-compared to an average of twelve in 45 minutes in Canberra.

The televising of question time (live most days, recorded and broadcast later on the others) has undoubtedly done considerable harm to the image of politicians in the community, for there is a reasonably large viewing audience and much of the behaviour is regarded as either juvenile or outrageous, or both. A serious improvement in behaviour would require a much more powerful and independent Speaker. The difficulty in achieving this is discussed later.

More modest improvements have been attempted. In 1994 the Labor government, over opposition objections, introduced a rostering system for ministers at question time. The prime minister would be available on only two days a sitting week, which meant about 40 times a year. A proposal that supplementary questions should be allowed was rejected by Prime Minister Keating, who thought that the opposition had adequate opportunities by being allowed to ask every second question. He chose to ignore the fact that between an opposition question and its follow-up there might be a ten minute gap while a loquacious minister answered a ‘Dorothy Dix’ question from a government party backbencher.

The rostering system did not survive the 1996 election loss by the Labor government, but the new Speaker, Robert Halverson, did use his power under the standing orders to permit single supplementary questions, which could be asked only by the MP who asked the original question and had to be relevant to the minister’s answer. These supplementary questions were not popular with ministers (despite the same system having been in use for many years in the Senate) and Halverson was induced to resign. His successor did not permit such supplementary questions. Halverson was compensated by being made Ambassador to South Africa.

The Australian states

The system in the Australian states is similar to the Canberra pattern. The length of question time varies between 30 minutes and one hour. An exception to the pattern of taking alternate questions from each side of the House occurs in Tasmania, because of the great scarcity of government party backbenchers. Tasmania also permits a single follow-up question. A problem in all the Australian lower houses is that the Speaker is a party appointment and, particularly in the Labor Party, he offends the ministry at his peril. To avoid constant party disputes over the Speaker’s rulings, he is tied down by a web of standing orders, and has little discretion. The result is that question time is far too rigid and the length and relevance of ministers’ answers are rarely controlled.

The use of question time

Question time in all the lower houses is used principally for election campaigning by both government and opposition, though the UK balloting system does permit backbenchers to raise issues of concern to their constituencies or their support groups, or ones to which the member has a personal commitment. Even in the other parliaments where the question list is controlled by the party leadership it has been found necessary, to avoid backbencher frustration, to permit occasional questions to be asked at the backbenchers’ discretion.

Nevertheless question time is essentially an electioneering exercise, and it is not usually a source of factual information. Indeed, new opposition members are warned never to ask a question without knowing the answer, for an unexpected answer might be very embarrassing. In any case, ministers are not obliged actually to answer questions. They may speak at length in reply to the question, provided that what they say is relevant to the question (and relevance is very generously interpreted by many Speakers) but they often do not give the information the questioner seeks. The exceptions are the initial answers in the UK House of Commons and the New Zealand House of Representatives, where the prepared replies are usually both relevant and helpful.

The campaigning nature of question time sometimes worries governments, particularly if it is televised live, as it is in the UK, Canada and Australia. The problem for the government is that it gives the opposition exposure that it would be difficult for it to obtain otherwise. Indeed, a prominent Australian Labor politician claimed that question time was not a right, it was a privilege extended by the executive government.[68] This shows a remarkable contempt for the answerability of the executive government to the lower house, but he had a point in that question time is not entrenched in any constitution. It is established by custom and enforced by the standing orders of the various lower houses, and a ruthless government, supported by a disciplined party, could theoretically amend standing orders to eliminate it. But question time is too well established for this to be feasible politics. There has been a regular question time in the British House of Commons since the 1850s, and all the other parliaments, except Queensland’s, have had question times for a century, though it was not a daily event in New Zealand until 1962. Queensland, the lone maverick, has had a question time only since 1970. Question time seems secure, if not necessarily very informative.

The Speaker

Key elements of a successful question time are the strictness and impartiality of the Speaker, and these in turn depend greatly on the method of selection and security of tenure. There is no doubt that the system works best at Westminster. On being chosen, the UK Speaker cuts off all ties with his political party, and remains in office until he decides to retire. (Speakers were always male until 1992, when a woman was elected.) Although the principal requirements of a Speaker are now firmness and impartiality in enforcing all the rules for preserving order in the proceedings of the House, an earlier Speaker-in 1597-described the requirements as ‘voice great, carriage majestical, nature haughty, and purse plentiful’. These days the major parties do not put up candidates against the Speaker at general elections, when the Speaker runs not as a party candidate but as ‘Mr. Speaker seeking re-election.’ In the past hundred years no Speaker wishing to continue in office has failed to be re-elected, both by his constituents and by the House of Commons.

The other parliaments have not been successful in detaching the Speaker from party politics. The Speaker is almost always a government party member, the office changing with a change of government. The Speaker therefore has great difficulty in exercising effective control over senior ministers, particularly the prime minister. At question time the length and lack of relevance of some of their answers are disgraceful, as is their childish abuse of opposition questioners. Sometimes the answer to a ‘Dorothy Dix’ question from a government party MP amounts to a policy statement, which cannot be debated and would certainly not be permitted in the UK House of Commons. But if the Speaker in the Australian House of Representatives, for instance, comes into conflict with senior ministers there is no doubt who will be the loser. A good example occurred in February 1975, during the Whitlam Labor Government. There was a slanging match between a Liberal frontbencher, Jim Forbes, and a Labor minister, Clyde Cameron. Forbes was ordered to withdraw an unparliamentary expression, which he did, and then Speaker Cope called Cameron to order. Cameron said to the Speaker, most improperly: ‘Look, I don’t give a damn what you say.’ The Speaker again called Cameron to order, and asked ‘Is the Minister going to apologise?’ ‘No’, called out Prime Minister Whitlam, who was sitting at the centre table. The Speaker then ‘named’ Cameron, at which point the Manager of Government Business should have moved for his suspension from the House, but when he stood up to do so he was waved down by Whitlam. The opposition then moved the motion, which was defeated on party lines, though three ministers and the Deputy Speaker abstained. The Speaker resigned.

In June 2000 the Australian Speaker suspended a minister (the first such suspension for 40 years) as well as a shadow minister and four backbenchers for disgraceful behaviour after questions on the new goods and services tax system. The six suspensions were the most ever made in the federal Parliament. The Speaker survived.

In 1996 there was an attempt to take the Speaker out of party politics. Prime Minister Howard said that ‘I think it is important that steps are made on both sides of the parliament to re-assert and re-establish a degree of respect and regard for the institution.’ The Speaker, Robert Halverson, said that he was taking up the call of the prime minister for an independent Speaker, and that he would not be attending party meetings in future.

Perhaps the best solution is for the Speaker and the prime minister to be mutually antagonistic, but for the Speaker to have too much party support to be sacked by the prime minister. This occurred in the Australian House of Representatives between 1975 and 1983. Billy Snedden, a Liberal, had been leader of the opposition but had been ousted in a coup by Malcolm Fraser. When Fraser became prime minister, Snedden was elected speaker. He kept a tight rein on ministers, particularly Fraser, but continued to have substantial sympathetic support from the Liberal Party backbenchers. He was a very good and impartial Speaker, but the circumstances of his appointment are not likely to occur very often.

It will certainly be difficult to detach the position of the Speaker from party politics, partly because in the smaller parliaments a single seat may be crucial in determining which party has the numbers to form a government, but chiefly because the office is seen as a political prize for the government party. Nevertheless, within the limits imposed by party loyalty, most Speakers do attempt to be impartial, or at least to appear to be.

The prestige of the Speaker in the Australian Parliament was not improved when a Labor Party holder of the office was forced to resign in 1992 when it was revealed that he had received $65 000 in compensation for injuries suffered when a bicycle he had hired from the parliamentary gymnasium collapsed under him. There was much criticism of the propriety of a Speaker suing his own department, and of the size and the promptness of the compensation payment.

Canada, whose House of Commons is half the size of that at Westminster, has made a useful advance in the selection of the Speaker. Until 1986 the Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons was appointed by the prime minister, as the Speaker of the Senate still is. Since 1986 the Speaker of the Commons has been elected by an exhaustive secret ballot, with all MPs candidates, unless they give specific notice of withdrawal. The inaugural ballot attracted twenty candidates, some of them accidental; one was a minister who was overseas. Although a government party candidate will usually win, the non-government parties may have significant influence on which of the government party candidates is chosen.

Despite the fact that it is rather cumbersome, the Canadian system is much to be preferred to that used in the Australian House of Representatives, which is typical of the smaller parliaments. A secret ballot[69] is employed but there are usually only two candidates, one chosen by the government party and the other by the opposition party. Except with a minority government, the government candidate of course wins, and the opposition has no influence on the choice. The elected Speaker knows that he owes his appointment and survival to his party. The opposition does not matter, unless the uproar created by highly partisan rulings causes political embarrassment for the government. But governments have thick political skins.

Questions requiring written answers

If a member is seeking information, rather than trying to embarrass the government or seeking to obtain some personal publicity (or both), a question requiring a written answer is preferable, provided the answer is reasonably swift. Such handling is essential if the question is complex and the answer unavoidably lengthy. All the parliaments have arrangements for such questions, but there are marked differences in how long an MP may have to wait for a reply.

At Westminster written questions classified as ‘priority’ by the MP asking the question have to be answered on the day they are set down. If it is not possible to give a substantial answer so quickly, a holding answer must be given. Ministers endeavour to answer ordinary written questions within a week, and usually succeed.

Before 1986 written questions in the Canadian Parliament were usually answered within 65 days. A limit of 45 days, and a reduction in the number of written questions an MP could ask, were introduced in 1986. A question not answered within 45 days may be raised in the daily adjournment debate, when the minister will be present to respond.

In the Australian Federal Parliament delays of more than six months are not uncommon. The average is about three months, and it was thought quite extraordinary when a question was answered in two days. Most of the Australian state governments reply reasonably promptly to such questions. In Queensland they are usually answered the next day, but then there are very few questions. In Western Australia 60 per cent are answered within two days and the remainder within a week. Two states are unsatisfactory. In Victoria questions in the lower house are sometimes not answered for two or three years, for there is no requirement for ministers to answer within a certain time, but in the upper house since 1993 ministers have been required to answer questions on notice within 35 days. In New South Wales, where until recently ministers had no obligation to answer, questions sometimes remained unanswered for more than eight years. Amendments were made to the standing orders of the lower house in 1996 and the upper house in 1999 to require a minister to answer within 35 days, and if he failed to do so he would be forced to make an explanation to the House, and this procedure would continue every three sitting days until the minister did answer.

In New Zealand the standing orders require a minister to reply to a question requesting a written answer by the third sitting day after the question appears in the order paper.

In all the parliaments, questions requiring written answers may be used to assist in most of the roles of parliament: the campaigning role; the scrutinising of government activities and those of statutory corporations; advancing private campaigns by MPs; and assistance to constituents and pressure groups.

Debates initiated by the government

Debates are the other principal way of pressing these objectives. Such debates may range from the endorsement of complex policy statements to brief instructions such as that a statement may be noted, or the House adjourn. The length of time allowed for the debates and for the speeches of individual members, and the opportunities given to opposition parties and private members to raise their own subjects, vary from parliament to parliament.

Ministerial statements are a common way of presenting the government’s case. Some ministerial statements in the UK Parliament-on involvement in the Gulf War, for instance-are supported by the leader of the opposition or an opposition shadow minister. Other ministerial statements are more controversial, explaining future policy or justifying past performance, and the opposition is likely to be critical. Ministers may make statements, usually after question time, on any events or policy decisions they choose. The statements are usually brief, less than ten minutes, and the opposition shadow minister is then given the chance to speak for the same time, and to ask a few questions. After the minister has answered the questions, the proceedings become a general question and answer period (confined of course to the subject of the statement), with the opposition shadow minister permitted a brief final comment or last question. These ministerial statements are frequent-sometimes over a hundred a year-and it is rare for discussion to last more than an hour. In the 1998-99 session, for instance, there were 176 ministerial statements, not including those dealing with arrangements of business in the House.

In Canada, ministers make an average of about 30 statements a year, and there are brief responses from the frontbench spokesmen of the non-government parties. In Australia, the usual procedure is for a minister to make a statement, by leave, having previously given a copy of the statement to the opposition. On conclusion of the statement the minister tables it, and moves ‘that the House take note of the paper’, and the statement may be debated immediately. There is an average of 25 ministerial statements a year, typically with an hour being spent on each. In New Zealand a minister may make a statement at any time, except that he must not interrupt a member already speaking, and may speak for up to five minutes unless the House gives leave for longer. The leader of the opposition, or his representative, may then reply for up to five minutes, after which the minister has a further two minutes to respond. That is all. It is a procedure heavily loaded in the government’s favour, and it is surprising that only about ten ministerial statements are made each year.

The various parliaments have other procedures by which governments can initiate debates on subjects of their choosing. In the UK House of Commons the government may move substantive motions on matters as diverse as nuclear forces, the European Community, or the arts. Debates on important issues may also take place on the adjournment motion which has the advantage (for the government) that the opposition cannot move amendments. In all, about 150 hours a year are spent on such debates. In Canada and Australia, if a minister gives notice of a motion on a substantive issue it becomes government business and the government may then arrange the order of its motions as it thinks fit. Government motions are used very rarely in New Zealand.

All the government motions have the same purpose: to present government policies in the best light, and to win public support for them. The opposition’s aim is to discredit the government’s policies and performance, or at the very least, if the policy is popular, to suggest that the opposition, in government, would handle it rather better. The debates can be very important in clarifying the policies of both government and opposition, and also provide an opportunity for rising members to make their mark. If mere dissemination of the policies to those affected by them is all that is required, use of advertising or the news media is more effective than the parliament. Announcements of new government policies directly to the public, ignoring parliament, are becoming common. In the UK the Speaker takes some action to encourage such announcements to be made as statements in the House of Commons, but the other parliaments do nothing, tacitly accepting that the government is not politically responsible to the parliament.

Debates initiated by the opposition

The opportunity given to the opposition to initiate debates on matters it considers of concern are a useful measure of how fairly a lower house works. Even ruthless governments are likely to be held back a little in the suppression of the rights of the opposition by the thought that they will probably be in opposition themselves some day. Oppositions use the opportunity to move motions criticising government performance, exposing divisions in the government ranks, raising problems which need to be tackled, or putting forward opposition policies. Care has to be taken with the last one, for governments sometimes take over attractive opposition proposals, which is not in the least what the opposition wants. Stealing our clothing, trumpets the opposition, but there is little that can be done about it. Worse still, it is difficult to criticise the government’s decision, though oppositions sometimes manage to.

It can be seen that all the opposition’s motions are aimed at the next election. It might be argued that they are also performing Bagehot’s ‘informing function, of the government’, but opposition motions very rarely tell governments anything they do not already know.

In the UK, since 1985 there have been seventeen days allocated for the official opposition and three days for the second largest opposition party to debate matters of their choice; the larger opposition parties occasionally yield one of their days to the small nationalist parties. The allotted days can be taken in the form of ‘half days’-lasting about three hours-if so desired. In all, an average of a hundred hours a year is spent on motions initiated by the non-government parties. In Canada, there are twenty ‘supply’ days a year, when the non-government parties may move motions and debate any subject falling within the jurisdiction of Parliament.

In Australia there is a period of two hours each sitting Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for discussions of ‘matters of public importance’, two hours being allowed for such debates. Although any MP may submit a proposal, traditionally ministers do not do so for they have other means of initiating debates. Most of the subjects-about 90 per cent-are initiated by the opposition, and all of them are chosen by the opposition executive. The matter proposed for discussion must come within the bounds of ministerial responsibility, but the purpose is the same, whether the subject comes from the opposition executive or a government party backbencher: the continuing campaign for voter support.

In New Zealand there can be debate on a motion concerning ‘a definite matter of public importance’. The Speaker tightly controls the acceptance of such motions, which must deal with a matter which is within the responsibility of the government, has recently occurred and requires the immediate attention of the House of Representatives or the government. Many applications are rejected for not meeting these criteria. About seven a year are accepted, and the average time spent on these debates is fourteen hours a year.

Censure motions

Oppositions have a more potent weapon for forcing debates on subjects of their choice, but it must be used sparingly lest it become blunted. This weapon is a motion of censure of the government. By convention, the government promptly provides for such a motion to be debated, for if it is carried it means the downfall of the government. The traditional form is ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government’, but there may be elaborations as to why the government should be condemned, particularly if the opposition knows the motion will not succeed.

In the UK, there were several no-confidence motions between 1970 and 1999. Three of them occurred during the minority Labor government of 1976-79, and the third one, in March 1979, was successful. The 1979 vote was actually on a motion to reduce by half the salary of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but this was accepted by the government as a motion of no-confidence. During the Thatcher years, 1979-90, the Conservative majority was such that a no-confidence motion had no chance of success, so the motions moved, in 1980, 1981, 1985 and 1990, attacked aspects of the government’s policy, its handling of social issues, or its management of the economy. Of course all these motions failed, but they provided publicity for the opposition. In the 1990s there were six no-confidence motions moved over the issues of economic management, the Maastricht treaty, poll tax, the European Communities Bill as well as two general motions. None succeeded.

Canada has a peculiarly rigid convention with regard to confidence motions. A government defeat on any vote is taken as a vote of no-confidence, though the vote can be reversed. In 1968 the minority Pearson Government was defeated on the third reading of a budget measure, but the situation was restored by the immediate passage of a vote of confidence. The rigid arrangements over no-confidence motions are much liked by the government whips, who use them to enforce party discipline. In 1985 a parliamentary reform committee recommended the obvious solution that for a vote to be taken as a matter of confidence it must be declared to be so either by the mover or by the prime minister. Although this was accepted ‘in principle’ by the Mulroney Government, it seems that not until there is a minority government will reform be complete. There were no actual censure motions of the government moved between 1970 and 1999, but on opposition supply days the House of Commons several times debated motions which included censure of a minister. None of these motions succeeded.

In Australia the standing orders of the House of Representatives provide that any motion which expresses a censure of a government, or lack of confidence in it, and is accepted by a minister as such, has precedence over all other business. There were 251 such motions between 1970 and 1999. The tight party discipline ensured that all except one of these motions failed,[70] and even that one was decided on party lines. This was during the dramatic events of November 1975 when Labor Prime Minister Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General. He moved a motion of no confidence in Malcolm Fraser, the new prime minister, and it was carried on party lines. But it was too late; the Governor-General was already in the process of dissolving both houses.

In New Zealand a government has not been defeated on a vote of confidence since 1928. The opposition does not move a formal motion of no-confidence in the government, for private members’ motions (including those from the leader of the opposition) have no precedence, and there is no convention in the New Zealand Parliament of giving immediate priority to a motion of no-confidence. The normal method in New Zealand is for the opposition to move an amendment to a major policy bill, the amendment expressing lack of confidence in the government. Such amendments have been moved 28 times between 1970 and 1999; all failed.

Governments can move motions of confidence in themselves, to re-establish their position after losing a vote, or as a weapon in a public-relations war. Whitlam did the latter successfully in Australia in 1975, when the Senate was refusing to pass the budget unless he agreed to an election. Governments can also declare any vote they wish a matter of confidence. This is done to rally disaffected backbenchers, who are not sufficiently disenchanted to wish to cause a government resignation or an election. Wilson employed this tactic in the UK in 1976 when he declared an adjournment motion a question of confidence. He did this in order to recover from a startling defeat the previous day, when his white paper on expenditure was rejected, with 37 of his own party abstaining.

Many opposition motions contain criticism of the government or of individual ministers, but these are not confidence motions (unless the government accepts them as such) and are treated as ordinary motions, though a government may bring one on for early debate if it sees political advantage in doing so.

Private members’ bills and motions

There remains the question of how individual MPs can press their concerns, or the interests of their constituents. All the parliaments give such opportunities to backbenchers on both sides of the house. Private members’ bills have already been discussed in Chapter 6. Since 1995 private members’ motions in the UK Parliament have been debated on Wednesday mornings, and backbenchers can expect a total of about 60 hours for debate on their motions each year, those to be debated being drawn by ballot. Many will thus be disappointed, but can achieve publicity, usually their principal objective, by tabling an ‘Early Day’ motion. These days, well over a thousand such motions are tabled each year, and as they may be supported by the signatures of other members, some of them have a wider significance than publicity for local problems or personal campaigns. Ministers have to consider very carefully any suggested changes in government policy which are supported by large numbers of government backbenchers, and also the levels of support for particular causes, or indications of divisions in the government ranks. With these motions backbenchers are performing Bagehot’s ‘informing’ role, and they force a government to listen.

In Canada on four days of each sitting week one hour is set aside so that private members’ bills and notices of motion can be debated, though this provision does not apply during the Address in Reply or budget debates, or on supply days. Notices of motion may either urge the government to consider a proposal for action on something within its jurisdiction, or attempt to make the government produce papers; success in the latter is very rare. MPs may introduce as many bills as they like but are limited to one motion each session. Hundreds of bills and motions are proposed each session, and it is not possible to debate more than a handful of them. As already explained when the handling of private members’ bills was discussed, twenty of the bills and motions are drawn by the Deputy Speaker in a ballot, and a committee considers them and selects six which will be brought to a vote, after up to three hours debate. Each year the House spends more than twice as much time on private members’ motions as it does on their bills. As an alternative to giving notice of a motion, MPs other than ministers may make short statements on matters they consider important during a fifteen minute period provided each sitting day.

In the Australian House of Representatives there is an opportunity, for about 90 minutes each sitting Monday, for the consideration of private members’ business, either bills or motions. A selection committee, on which the government party has a majority, decides which subjects should be discussed and for how long. This private members’ business is followed by a ‘grievance’ debate lasting 80 minutes, during which members who are lucky enough to get the call have ten minutes in which to raise any matter they choose. Finally, at the end of each day’s sitting, there is a half hour adjournment debate, during which members have five minutes to explain their chosen theme. Members thus have fairly frequent, though brief, opportunities to try to gain publicity for a problem or a cause. In all, they can expect a total of 70 hours in a typical year. In addition, they can try to gain publicity by giving notice of a private motion, knowing there is no chance of it being brought on for debate, but hopeful of possible publicity. As there cannot be multiple signatories to these motions, they are not as valuable to the government in the ‘informing’ role as are the British ‘Early Day’ motions.

In New Zealand the party system has taken control of the debates on private members’ motions.


As a method of gaining publicity for a cause, an alternative to giving notice of a motion is to present a petition. Petitions have a long history, but very little modern impact. Any citizen or group of citizens may prepare and sign a petition asking the house to take some action which is within its power. A petition has to be presented by a MP. In the UK the member may, if he wishes, state who the petitioners are, the number of signatories, and what they want. The member may also state his own position, but must not make a speech.

The Canadian House of Commons receives about four thousand petitions each year. Each petition must contain a clear, proper and respectful request for Parliament to take some action within its authority, and must be certified by the Clerk of the House of Commons. An MP may present a petition either by filing it with the Clerk of the House, or by giving a brief summary of it during a period allocated for the presenting petitions during the ordinary daily routine of business. The MP may also state from whom the petition comes and the number of signatories, but may not make a speech about it. Each MP has only one chance each sitting to present all his petitions. The government has to reply within 45 days of receiving each petition, usually by tabling a written reply.

In the Australian federal Parliament the subjects of the petitions, the number of petitioners, and the electorates of the MPs presenting them, are read out by the Clerk in a steady monotone. Petitions are usually organised by politicians or their supporters, and are concerned with issues of public policy rather than the grievances of petitioners. The government is under no obligation to reply to petitions, and very rarely does so. The system is much the same in the states, where the petitions are either tabled or the Clerk reads out a summary. Western Australia is the exception, for there the MP reads out the petition. Despite their ineffectiveness, a surprising number of petitions are presented each year. In New South Wales, for instance, as many as 2000 petitions have been presented in a single year.

In New Zealand the MPs present their petitions in the same way as in the UK Parliament, and the petitions are then referred to the appropriate standing committee for investigation. The committee usually asks for a report from the department concerned and gives the petitioner an opportunity to address the committee. A report is then made to the Parliament, and the government is expected to respond. In practice, not all petitions are treated this way, either because a petition relates to a bill before the committee (the petition is then treated as a submission) or because the committee is overloaded. If the committee does not consider a petition, the government does not respond.

Research assistance for members

All members have small personal staffs to help with electoral work and to help with some research, and shadow ministers have additional staff, but they are quite inadequate to investigate the complex policy issues which face the parliaments, and to give MPs a reasonable base to confront the resources available to government ministers.

In the UK the allowance for MPs to reimburse them for expenses incurred on secretaries, general office expenses and on the employment of research assistants has been increased annually since 1974, and after starting at 500 in 1969 had reached 50 264 by 1999. The House of Commons library also provides research services and references services exclusively for MPs. MPs in the UK House of Commons have an interesting travel allowance. Like the members of nearly all the parliaments they have a car allowance for use on parliamentary duties, but they also have had, since 1998, a bicycle allowance for similar use. The allowance in 1999 was 6.2 pence per mile.

In Canada federally each recognised party (that is, with at least twelve MPs) is given funds to run a research office. The amount of the grant is roughly proportional to the number of MPs and, as a typical example, in 1999/2000 the government party (with 161 members) received $1 370 940. Individual MPs are also given a grant to hire staff for their Ottawa and constituency offices. The basic amount of the grant is at present $194 800, but there are supplements for ridings of above average size or number of constituents. The maximum salary an MP may pay a staff member is $63 211.

In the Canadian provinces, the general pattern is that each MP is provided with sufficient funds to run an office and employ a constituency assistant. In addition, each parliamentary caucus is given funding based on the number of members in the caucus, to hire secretarial, research and computer staff who serve the whole caucus. The amounts available to individual members vary with the resources of the province. In Ontario, for instance, each member is allowed $153 350 (in 2000/01) to hire staff to work either in Ottawa or in the constituency. There are no limits on how many staff can be hired, but there are limits on how much an individual may be paid-a clerk typist may be paid up to $29 998, for instance, and a legislative assistant up to $40 477. At the other extreme, in New Brunswick a member is given an allowance which is sufficient to pay for a part-time assistant in the constituency, and that is all the member gets, except of course for possible access to the caucus staff.

In Australia, there is no funding given to party caucuses. Federal MPs and senators each have a staff of three, a secretary and two research assistants, their salaries determined and paid by the government. In the states there are similar arrangements, except that the staff numbers are generally one or two, with the upper house members getting less support than those in the lower house. In New Zealand, MPs have a staff of two.

All the parliaments have libraries, and the staffs there do assist members, but they cannot meet all of the research requirements of the parliaments. Most of the parliaments have established additional research services, but there is much room for dispute about their role. Are they to meet the research requirements of individual members? Are they a support organisation for parliamentary committees? Or are they to use their own initiative to examine important policy issues for the benefit of all members?

In practice the support for parliamentary committees has usually been the dominant role, with some policy research being done, and individual requests generally being met only if they have broader importance, though in fact meeting these individual requests is very important to the efficient working of parliament. A British MP wrote that members need ‘access to information they want, with the necessary level of detail ... with the full confidence that it is neutral in its presentation and accurate.’ In fact the House of Commons Library meets these requirements, providing a research service as well as reference sources exclusively for MPs.

In Canada only the federal Parliament and the Ontario and Quebec legislatures have separate research services for members. In Australia the Legislative Research Service was established in Canberra in 1966 with a staff of three to provide statistics to MPs and senators. In 1997 it was merged with the Parliamentary Library Information Service and by 2000 the new organisation had a staff of 115. Of the remaining parliaments, only New South Wales and South Australia have such services.

Broadcasting parliamentary proceedings

If the responsibility of the parliament to the voters is to be effective, the general public must be able to find out accurately what is going on there. All parliaments have recognised this, and all sittings of the parliaments have been in public, with the exception of a few secret sessions in wartime. The same applies to committee meetings when witnesses are giving evidence, which are open to the public unless a witness successfully asks for them to be held in camera on grounds such as national security, business confidence or personal safety. This is a dramatic change from the eighteenth century, when the House of Commons met in secret to conceal its proceedings from the King.

But it is one thing to have an open parliament, quite another to have information about its proceedings available to widely scattered voters. The number of people who attend parliament, other than as sightseers, is tiny. There is a verbatim record available of what is said and done in parliament, usually called Hansard, but its circulation is probably even smaller than the number of non-sightseeing visitors. The name Hansard comes from the firm which began printing the House of Commons debates in the nineteenth century, to replace the unofficial and frequently inaccurate accounts which until then had been all that was available. The circulation of the daily Hansard of the lower house is 2340 in the UK and the weekly Hansard 1300 in Australia. In Canada only a limited number is printed for in-house distribution, but it is also available on the internet.

Circulation of parliamentary information was traditionally by newspapers and magazines, but problems developed as the voting roll widened and the electronic media superseded print as the principal means by which the general public received political information. All the parliaments were curiously timid and reluctant to adjust to the realities of the change, but most of them have now-to reverse the words of W.M. Hughes-been dragged kicking and screaming into the tart shop. They have realised that although parliamentary behaviour is sometimes unedifying and often boring, it is better to be noticed than ignored. Besides, they have a duty to inform the public of what they are doing.

There are three methods of using radio or television to report parliament to the people. The options are: a continuous live broadcast; live broadcasts of selected events, such as question time; or recordings taken to be used later in news bulletins or summaries of parliamentary happenings. Radio was the first of the electronic media to gain acceptance. The New Zealand Parliament has been broadcast live on radio since 1936, and that of Australia since 1946. There are special problems in Australia, where there are two active houses, and the solution has been for the broadcast days to be split between the houses, with the Representatives getting roughly twice as many days as the Senate. The daily question time of the house not being broadcast is recorded and can be heard during the dinner break.

MPs rather like radio broadcasts, but the audiences are derisory, usually only a few thousand nationwide. In 1983 the Australian Broadcasting Commission conducted a survey of listeners to the ABC in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Hobart, finding that just under one in two (49.3 per cent) had listened to the federal Parliament at some time in the past. Almost 58 per cent of these listeners confessed that they had done so only because ‘it just comes on when I am tuned to the station.’ Only one in five of those listening followed what went on in Parliament, and one in ten tuned in only to hear question time.[71] In the UK there is no regular broadcasting of Parliament, but occasionally an important debate, such as that on the involvement of British forces in the Gulf War, is broadcast live. All parliaments now permit recordings of events in the parliament to be used in radio news bulletins and similar programs, though there are always requirements that the excerpts are not to be used for satire or ridicule, and that there must be a fair political balance.

Television has proved more difficult. Canada’s House of Commons is the only national house which provides continuous live television coverage and has done so since 1978. All the provinces permit the televising of proceedings, though it is limited in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. The Australian Parliament permits the live televising of question time, on a roster system between the two houses. A recording of the question time of the house not televised live is broadcast late at night. Some other selected events are televised live, such as the opening of Parliament, the budget speech and the reply by the leader of the opposition. Public committee hearings in either house may be televised if the committees agree. New Zealand permits the live telecasting of Parliament, but it is very rarely shown because of lack of viewer interest. The select committees could approve the live telecasting of their public proceedings but they never do, again because of lack of interest. In the UK, proceedings in both houses and their committees are available for broadcast, but usually only the prime minister’s question time and the chancellor of the exchequer’s annual budget statement are broadcast live on BBC2, with excerpts from other debates being used in news bulletins and other reports. Continuous unedited coverage of Parliament is also available on cable and digital satellite TV.

There are usually restrictions covering such matters as political balance and presentation. TV cameras must focus on the MP speaking, for instance, not the interjectors or the empty benches. To exploit the latter rule, some parliaments use a technique called ‘doughnutting’ when the house is sparsely attended, by gathering round the member speaking and giving the impression of a well-attended, attentive house.

The audiences vary. In Canada the parliamentary TV is watched by more than a million viewers per week, a major contribution to this figure being made by the evening replays of question time. The audiences for the Australian broadcasts of question time, normally at 2 pm, vary from 0.2 per cent of the viewing public to 9 per cent, though audiences for special events such as the treasurer’s budget speech may be as much as 20 per cent of viewers. The average audience for the prime minister’s question time in the UK is around one million.

What effects do the new methods of communication have on the behaviour of MPs? Radio does not seem to have very much effect, although it is true that in Australia MPs and senators definitely prefer to speak on a broadcast day and sometimes even address the few listeners rather than their parliamentary colleagues. Television is having a bigger impact. Viewers are sometimes startled by the behaviour of members. Since the introduction of the televising of question time in the Australian Parliament, the public assessment of politicians has fallen sharply. In a public opinion survey, the federal politicians were given a ‘very high’ or ‘high’ rating by 19 per cent of those canvassed in 1983 (before the televising of question time), falling steadily after question time began to be televised, reaching 13 per cent in 1999.[72] Television certainly improves the grooming of members, and some of them have learnt that they need different speech techniques for television audiences. Whether this matters or not depends on the role one believes the house is performing in its debates and question times.

Parliaments must accept the changing media techniques. After all, two hundred years ago their predecessors had to adjust to the opening of parliament to journalists and other writers. If the current changes are revealing unacceptable or childish behaviour by MPs, the remedy is in their hands.


What can the Australian House of Representatives learn from the other parliaments in the performance of these ‘other roles’? All the parliaments can be said to be fairly effective in performing Bagehot’s first three functions of expressing the views of the people, forcing people to hear two [or more] sides of political questions, and informing the government of opinion in the community.

As for the scrutiny and review function, investigations by parliamentary committees are potentially the most effective method of probing the administrative performance of the government. All of the national parliaments now have a system of committees to investigate the activities of government departments, but all suffer from the fact that they are usually controlled by the government party, and also from the nature of politics, which causes MPs to focus on dramatic mistakes and shortcomings rather than departmental objectives and methods. The committees function best in the UK, where party discipline is less rigid than in the other parliaments, and worst in New Zealand, where the committees also handle legislation and frequently become so bogged down with the handling of bills that they have little or no time to scrutinise what government departments are doing. This has not been a problem in the Australian House of Representatives, which rarely sends a bill to a committee, and indeed usually takes little interest in the details of the bills it passes. If the suggestion made in Chapter 6 that committees of the House should consider all non-controversial bills (leaving the controversial ones to Senate committees) is adopted, there would not be much impact on the available committee time. The committee inquiries into the non-controversial bills would be a sort of safety net, checking with experts in the community that nothing undesirable is slipping through by accident, and looking into matters raised by the Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee. It would be rare for a committee to have to spend much time on such inquiries.

The committees in the Australian House of Representatives are reasonably effective in dealing with matters the government wants (or is prepared) to have investigated, but they almost never deal with questions the government does not want investigated, which are often the most important. Fortunately the Senate is available to fill this role. There is also one unique provision in the Australian House of Representatives. A committee may be given a task directly by a minister, so that the committee is effectively responsible to the minister rather than the other way round!

The performance of the committees depends heavily on the quality of their support staff, and the control of these crucial resources rests with the governments the committees are supposed to be scrutinising. Except in New Zealand, the staff resources for committees in the national parliaments are reasonable, but only in the UK is it at all likely that the lower house would revolt if the government began to starve the committees of resources.

In none of the parliaments is there effective supervision of non-departmental government bodies.

With regard to the roles Bagehot did not discuss, support by MPs for their constituents is on the whole diligently performed. In all the parliaments they now have some staff to assist them, and they can make representations, often effectively, either in the parliament or directly to the minister. There is a danger, though, from the nature of the requests for assistance coming to them, that they may find themselves acting as untrained social workers. How well the members of the lower houses perform their continuing electioneering role is a matter of opinion. Certainly they devote a great deal of time, effort and thought to it.

Turning to the mechanisms available to MPs for carrying out these roles, the least effective is question time in the Australian House of Representatives, which not only provides little information but also does great damage to the image of politics and politicians. It is mostly blatant and rather vulgar electioneering. Both questions and answers do not keep to the point, as evidenced by the fact that, for instance, the number of questions dealt with per hour in the House of Representatives is only a third of the number in the Canadian House of Commons.

What can be done to improve the deplorable standard of question time? Of the four national parliaments, Canberra is the only one where supplementary questions are not allowed, a brief experiment initiated by a Speaker in the 1990s being intensely disliked by ministers and eventually aborted. In the UK and New Zealand, the questions are in writing and the minister gives a prepared reply and then stands by for the supplementary questions (the first from the MP who asked the written question, and then from alternate sides of the House) until, in the opinion of the Speaker, the question has been adequately dealt with. In the Canadian House of Commons nearly all questions come from the opposition, and questions from the government side are frowned upon.

What is desperately needed in Australia is for the two sides of politics to get together to improve the standard of question time, and to encourage the Speaker to enforce both relevance and brevity on the questioner and the minister, and to reject the attitude of a former deputy prime minister that question time was not a right, it was a privilege granted by the executive government, which epitomises the modern distortion of the responsibility of the government to the lower house of Parliament in Australia.

The UK and New Zealand system of written questions followed by a prepared answer, and then supplementary questions to clarify the matter, seems the best model. It is often claimed that this would give unacceptable power to the Speaker, who is a party figure in the Australian House of Representatives. But so he is in the Canadian and New Zealand parliaments, and they have managed to produce a satisfactory question time. What is wanted in Australia is a commonsense approach by the two sides of Parliament.

Such an approach might also improve the general standing of the Speaker, who is certainly not regarded with the respect given to the Speakers in the other national parliaments. Rulings by the Speaker (unlike those in the UK and Canada) can be, and often are, disputed. In the Australian House of Representatives, 159 motions of dissent from rulings of the chair have been moved since 1901, and seven have been successful. There have also been eleven motions of censure or want of confidence in the Speaker, Deputy Speaker or Acting Speaker. All have failed, but the damage done to the status of the office of Speaker has been considerable.

Whatever the merits of the motions concerning the chair, the voting in the Australian lower house is almost always on party lines, including motions to suspend MPs, no matter how outrageous their conduct. This makes it almost impossible for a Speaker to discipline a minister. For example, in 1975 the Speaker ‘named’ a Labor government minister for defying him during question time, but the Labor Party voted against his suspension. The Speaker resigned.

If it be information that an MP requires, questions requiring written answers are usually more effective than question time, provided the answers are prompt. In the Australian Parliament the delay in answering questions is excessive, being an average of about three months compared with a week at Westminster and three sitting days in New Zealand. The delays are symptomatic of the attitude of Australian ministers and bureaucrats to the Parliament.

The performance of the Australian House of Representatives is markedly worse than some or all of the other parliaments in two other areas: the frequency with which statements of government policy are made outside the Parliament, and in the handling of petitions. The Speaker of the UK House of Commons takes some steps to embarrass and thereby discipline a minister who makes an important policy statement outside the House of Commons. In the other parliaments it is becoming increasingly common for important policy statements to be made on nationwide television, with the parliament being informed later or perhaps not at all.

With regard to petitions, the Australian government almost never responds to those presented to the House of Representatives, whereas in Canada the government gives a reply to each petition within 45 days, and in New Zealand each petition is referred to the appropriate standing committee, which usually gives the petitioner a chance to address it. The Australian government should show more respect for voters who take the trouble to prepare petitions.

Although in all the parliaments there are reasonable opportunities for MPs to protect the individual interests of their constituents, by personal advice, by questions (oral and written), grievance speeches and direct representations to ministers, the growing reach and complexity of government administration has placed many problems beyond the capacity of MPs to remedy. The solutions have been the introduction of ombudsmen and various appeal tribunals, but, valuable as these are, they have weakened the responsibility of the government to the parliament.

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