Parliament questions

Functions of parliament:

  1. Legislative – passing bills
  2. Scrutiny – Question time
  3. Accountability – Estimates Committee
  4. Representative – Adjournment and grievance debates
  5. Forum for debate – Reading debates

Caucus – a meeting of parliamentary members of the Labor party. They make all their policies and choose their leaders in caucus. They are usually dominated by factions, the National Right and National Left being the greatest. Compare to the Liberal party room.

Parliamentary conventions prescribe the way in which parliament operates. It is an unwritten rule, not legally binding, but an accepted way of doing something. They include standing orders, and conventions such as pairing.

The Second reading is where members take it in turns to debate the main points of the Bill. In contrast, consideration by the Committee of the Whole is where the House carefully examines the bill and each clause. Whilst only few members may debate in the Second reading (managed by the LoH and M of Opp’n B), all members are present and may participate in the Committee of the Whole.

Impact and opportunities of:

The Opposition:
  • Ability to scrutinise government legislation, but not very effective since they do not hold a majority in HoR
  • Scrutiny and accountability more effective in Senate and committees
  • More impact in hung parliaments
  • All members of the Opp’n are backbenchers, opportunity to introduce PMBs
Committees:
  • Able to discuss policies and legislation better
  • More informal, less partisan, more cooperation
  • Large impact, since parties must work together
Backbenchers:
  • If part of gov’t, they may have a say in policies
  • Have membership of committees
  • May speak in debates and readings
  • May propose PMBs
  • See Decline of Parliament thesis – that Parliament is just a rubber stamp for Cabinet decisions
Private Members:
  • Not very large impact
  • Only 15 PMBs have passed since 1901
  • Without major party support, the PMB won’t pass

Private Members’ Bills:

  • Most recent – Andrew Wilkie, Independent MP for Denison, managed to pass the Evidence Amendment (Journalists Privilege) Act 2012, which protected the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
  • Only 15 PMBs have passed since Federation
  • PMBs are often introduced by independents and minor parties wishing to push their agenda.
  • Also, major parties may use PMBs to pass controversial legislation and allow conscience votes
  • This is to avoid voter backlash
  • They rarely pass because they usually do not have the support of a major party

Committees

A select committee is one that stands only for the life of the issue. They usually investigate events or a specific issue or topic. After the committee has prepared its report and made recommendations to Parliament, it is dissolved. An example of a select committee is the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia – chaired by Warren Entsch, holding an inquiry in to the development of Northern Australia.

In contrast, a standing committee stands for the entire sitting term of Parliament (permanent as opposed to temporary), and is responsible for the scrutiny and policy development of large areas, such as Foreign Affairs. They hold inquiries and are intimately involved in the drafting and passage of legislation, in contrast to select committees which usually only recommend or draft bills. An example of a standing committee is Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs looking into The harmful use of alcohol in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and is chaired by Sharman Stone.

A joint committee is one whose members comprise both Members of the HoR and the Senate. These committees can be both Standing or Select. Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee – looking into Inquiry into Australia’s trade and investment relationships with countries of the Middle East chaired by Teresa Gambaro.

ESTIMATES Committees

  • Twice a year, Senate Standing Legislative committees sit as Estimates Committees
  • This is introduced as part of the Budget
  • They estimate proposed annual expenditure of government departments
  • E.g. the Senate SC for FADT, chaired by Chris Back is responsible for the Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade Departments.
  • 3 gov’t, 2 opp’n, 1 minor

 

  • Immediately after the budget is introduced, the Senate refers to the Committees documents of proposed expenditure, which is an exact copy of the appropriation bills
  • Hence, the Senate is able to debate these documents, and not waste any time; making amendments and scrutinising as necessary.
  • Is able to summons and question government officials and Ministers, pursuant to standing order 26(5), and compel the production of documents

 

  • Allows Senate to effectively consider the Budget
  • Allows individual Senators with an opportunity to gather information about the operations of government (they cannot effectively scrutinise if they do not have information). They can ask and compel to answer government officials.
  • Plays a key role in Parliamentary scrutiny of the executive, and holding them to account for the use of public resources.

Best accountability mechanism of any Australian parliament

the Hon. Senator John Faulkner.

Senate inquiries

Differ from committees in that they are not set up by a majority of the House, and as such do not have all the powers of a Committee. Senate inquiries can be set up by any number of Senators to look into particular events, but are non-binding. These occur because a government is not likely to hold a Select Committee into its own failings. E.g. Senate Inquiry in the Manus Island Riots.

Joint sittings

  • Joint sittings of Parliament, under s 57 of the Constitution, are sessions in which both the House of Representatives and the Senate sit in the same chamber to debate a vote on a certain bill.
  • Joint sittings occur after: a double dissolution, and the bills that triggered the DD were again rejected by the new Senate, in its original form.
  • The only joint sitting happened in 1974 under the Whitlam government. The main bills that were discussed were the Medicare legislation. Other bills were also discussed and passed.

Ministerial Responsibility

Individual
  • Probity – Ministers are responsible to Parliament for their actions. Joel Fitzgibbon misleading Parl as Defence Minister in 2009; Arthur Sinodinos (Assistant Treasurer), 2014 March.
  • Propriety – Ministers are responsible to Parliament for the actions of their department, known or unknown to them. Bronwyn Bishop on kerosene (2000), Ros Kelly on Sports (1995); Peter Garrett on Home Insulation Program
  • In the event of maladministration or impropriety, the Minister is expected to resign
Collective
  • All Ministers must take responsibility on Cabinet decisions.
  • In public, Ministers may not dispute these decisions, unless they resign from the Ministry
  • E.g. Stewart West on Uranium, 1983; Gary Punch 1987 on third runway at Sydney Airport.

 

  • These prevent irresponsible executive action – that it is not possible for Ministers to deny responsibility
  • However, in recent times, these have not been kept as well as they should have. Decline of Parliament thesis.

It is widely accepted that these crucial doctrines have never operated as a means of ensuring that Ministers are held responsible for their actions.

(Richard Mulgan on IMR)

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