Decline and revival of Parliament

Theory of Responsible Government

  • In theory, Parliament should initiate, debate and determine legislation, scrutinising and holding to account the government. See previous notes for methods.
  • Parliament is important in representing the people. The people themselves do not elect the government, but elect representatives which end up forming government.
  • Parl should hold the executive to account, which includes the government and the public service and scrutinise their actions

Decline of parliament thesis (the Executive State)

This thesis states that the Parliament, intended as a representative and lawmaking body is failing or not effective in its functions – it does not legislate or hold the government to account as it should.

It is unable to check executive power.

  • Parliament, particularly the HoR, is merely a rubber stamp for Cabinet and is not effective as a forum for legislative debate.
  • Cabinet power – Cabinet determines which legislation is introduced into Parliament, and since the Gov’t has a majority in the HoR, this is always passed. Cabinet is dominating the legislative process = e.g. Howard/Gillard. Also cf. Abbott’s reintroduction of Knights and Dames
  • Party domination of the legislature- Members almost always vote along party lines (esp. Labor) or risk losing their membership, status or endorsement for preselections.

As long as the governing party holds its majority, the government and its Ministers are more accountable to their party than to the Parliament.

David Lovell

They are able to defeat any censure or no confidence motion, pass all their supply bills etc.

  • Question Time is ineffective and non-accountable – Howard and Gillard gov’t’s manipulation by giving very long answers, Dorothy Dixers and essentially give a show for the media, which discourages cooperation within Parliament and encourages adversarial approaches. There is very limited time for effective scrutiny.
  • Rushed legislation – Howard’s Workplaces Amendment Act 2005, Senate as a House of Echo/Obstruction
  • Role and position of the Speaker – does not discipline same party, openly biased. Cf. Bronwyn Bishop 190 ALP to 4 Libs
  • Opposition lacks resources, representatives and effective procedures to keep government accountable. The Government always has the majority (except in hung parliaments, which are few, where this increases), so it can defeat any attempt by Parliament to censure, dismiss its Ministers, or withhold Supply – e.g. No confidence motion in Bishop as Speaker. Government can use gags and guillotine’s to stifle debateused 216 in the 43rd Parliament. Committee stage, which is the most effective method of scrutiny, can be bypassed.
  • Presidential style PM – Rudd, and to a lesser extent so far, Abbott (but PPL and Knights and Dames have cast doubts.)
  • The bias of a parliamentary system is inherently towards executive control of Parliament – Campbell Sharman – because the executive government must have the support of a majority of Parliament, unlike the presidential system where the executive is completely independent of the legislature.
  • Senate is not doing its job as a House of Review or the States’ House; instead following party lines. This factor decreases if Gov’t doesn’t have a majority in Senate.

Revival of parliament

  • Senate is beginning to do its job as a House of Review as there are 18 crossbenchers – 10 Greens, 3 PUP, 1 Democratic Labor, 1 Liberal Democrat, 1 Family First, 1 Motoring Enthusiast, 1 Independent. The proportional voting system favours minor parties, which in turn, makes it more likely that the gov’t is held to account properly. Senate is also less partisan, and Estimates Committees have been very effective.
  • Role of independents and minor parties in HoR also has led to better scrutiny – e.g. independents forced Gillard to rewrite Standing Orders for QT so that both questions and answers have time limits. Now, 5 crossbenchers are Katter, Palmer, Wilkie, Bandt, McGowan have little say in the Lib-dominated HoR.
  • Growth of the importance and powers of committees especially Estimates.

Summary of conclusion from John Summers

  • Traditional theory of responsible government attributes to the Parliament a number of roles:
    • Law-making body
    • Restraining the use of executive power
    • Role in the electoral process
  • Development of modern political parties have changed the relationship between Exec and Leg
    • If Gov’t has a majority in both Houses, Parliament really is ineffective – Howard on WorkChoices
    • If Gov’t does not have a majority, or Parliament is hung, it becomes more effective
  • Revival of the Senate has altered the portrayal of Parliament as Exec-dominated
    • Proportional representation favours minor parties
    • When they hold the Balance of Power, Parliament is much more effective
    • Gov’t is forced to negotiate and amend; subject to inquiries etc.
    • However, this may in turn cause instability through deadlock and inability to exercise a political mandate
    • Deadlock is easily and effectively dealt pursuant to s 57 of the Constitution.


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