How well does Parliament perform its functions?

In evaluating its effectiveness … It is suggested that … this could be improved by ….


In the HoR
  • Question Time
  • Censure motions
  • Adjournment and grievance debates
  • Budget in reply speech
In the Senate
  • Estimates Committees (Hon. John Faulkner “the best accountability mechanism of any Australian parliament”
  • Estimates are the best way that Government is held to account
  • Prof. Emr. Richard Mulgan of the ANU Crawford Institute of Public Policy “Estimates committees are very effective in holding the gov’t to account, but examples of where Estimates Committees have resulted in the finding of misappropriation and impropriety are few”
  • Ros Kelley 1992 Sports Whiteboard Affair – not recent, indicates that Estimates Committees have been ‘a catalyst to improved management and administration practice in the public sector’
  • The Committee is a ‘reminder to the gov’t of its obligation to be more accountable to Parliament and to the Australian people for its policy decisions’


  • Gags, guillotines – these can be used to prevent scrutiny – used 216 times in the 43rd Parl
  • Question Time – biased Speaker can limit Opposition attacks. Bronwyn Bishop has kicked out 190:4 and is clearly biased.
    • Use of Dorothy Dixers reduces opportunities for Opp’n to scrutinise.
    • Ministers can filibuster, since there is a time limit for an answer
    • Media coverage encourages confrontation and hence hinders good gov’t in favour of a theatre
    • Ministerial Responsibility. Joel Fitzgibbon (Defence) 2009; Arthur Sinodinos (Assistant Treasurer) 2014 – example of how IMR is misapplied.
    • Bronwyn Bishop’s refusal to resign over the kerosene scandal shows how ineffective it is
    • Probity and propriety
    • 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
  • Grievance and adjournment debates
  • No confidence motions – very seldom gets passed.
    • 1975 vs Fraser, but these were unique circumstances and had no real effect
    • 1941 vs. Fadden was the last one.

– very important

  • Senate inquires and Senate Select committees which they can set up as a result of the gov’t not having a majority in the Senate, however, gov’t does not have to respond to committee recommendations, but does highlight problems with government policies and decisions.
  • No gags or guillotines in the Senate. This does slow down the process, but legislation gets thoroughly scrutinised.
  • No confidence motions and censure motions – but holds little weight and are ignored by gov’t.
  • Limited scrutiny if House of Echo (Howard)
  • Equally, House of Obstruction if Opp’n controls Senate
  • Senate is becoming more effective in scrutiny with the rise of minor parties, starting with Don Chipp’s Democrats in 1977 ‘Keeping the bastards honest’
  • This means that the balance of power is often held by minor parties

Forum for debate

HoR and Senate
  • Budget speech in reply
  • Matters of Public Importance
  • Urgency Motions
  • 2nd reading stage of bills
  • Standing Committees (Legislative and Reference in the Senate)
  • Main Committee


  • Preferential voting favours two-party dominant system
  • Independents: PMBs cannot pass without support of the major parties
  • Only 19 have passed – the latest being Andrew Wilkie’s Evidence Amendment (Journalists’ Privilege) Act 2012
  • Petitions (min 5 signatures) – if only few signatures, the gov’t will not take much notice
  • Grievance debates
  • Adjournment debates
  • Private Members Mondays
  • Crossing the floor – Malcolm Turnbull has done it ____ times; Dr Sharman Stone 2013 on Murray-Darling Authority
  • Government has a mandate and uses its numbers in the HoR to pass its legislation as per its election platform
  • Government does not have a majority therefore cannot exercise its mandate as it does in the HoR
  • Minor parties say that they have a mandate to push their own agenda, and to scrutinise or block the gov’t’s legislation.
  • Proportional voting allows minor parties to be elected more easily
  • Motoring Enthusiasts received less than 0.5% of the primary vote, but managed to get a Senator due to preference deals with other minor parties
  • No longer the States’ House, as per intentions of the Constitution, but a party house
  • Reforms to the voting system in the Senate to make it more ‘representative’ (in the eyes of the major parties) are being looked into by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters chaired by Tony Smith.
  • This is supported by Lib, ALP and the Greens to ‘abolish shadowy preference deals that swept micro-parties into office’



  • ‘to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth’ s 51
  • 95% of legislation passes without too much controversy
  • 3 Reading stages of a Bill, consideration in detail and GG, then gazetted and it becomes a statute
  • Gags, guillotines and flood-gating – these can be both positive techniques to get legislation through if the Opposition is stonewalling legislation and a negative if the government is preventing careful scrutiny of the Bill
  • Reference to the Committee of the Main to consider the Bill in detail
  • Parliament does not carry its function if the Senate blocks legislation that the gov’t has gone to an election with and got a mandate to act (Carbon and Mining Tax)
  • Bills are referred to Legislative Committees in the Senate to eliminate any anomalies, contradictions, duplications etc.
  • No need for delegated legislation in this section, except to say that in order to smoothly carry out its function, some of its powers are passed over to statutory bodies who are better able to legislate in their area of expertise

Anthony Smith in his article ‘Parliament Degraded’ published in ‘the Monthly’ magazine – has argued that ‘all aspects of the institution are decaying’ and suggests that it carries out none of its functions effectively. While this may be a harsh assessment, it is obvious that he has serious misgivings about Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the government and hold them to account. He goes further and laments Parliament’s failure to be a truly representative body acting in the best interests of the electorate, and even its inability to legislate effectively or act as a forum for debate.

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