Evaluating the House of Representatives

Evaluating the
House of Representatives
What is Parliament?
Is the focus of law making
Derives its authority from the people
Expresses community will
Represents all sectors and interests
Debates issues in spirit of compromise
The Hybrid Australian Parliament
• Modelled on the Westminster Parliament from England
• Adopted elements of the US system
Essentially it is a responsible system within a federal
context. Thus it is a compromise design. It has
strengths from both systems but also it has weaknesses
that spring from a mismatch of the two parent systems.
Eg of weakness – Parliamentary Sovereignty (a key
component of the Westminster System) is not possible in
Australia because of the High Court and the existence of
sovereign states.
Australian Bicameralism
The 2 Houses are co-equal in power (another key
difference from Westminster), necessitating the “nexus
clause” and a process for resolving conflict (double
dissolution). A powerful upper house was a key cause of
the Constitutional Crisis of 1975.
Each House is ascribed different functions by the
• H of R = the Popular House and the House of
• Senate = the States’ House and a House of Review
Each House has a different electoral base
Issues With the Australian
Parliamentary Sovereignty:
Compromised in Australia by the existence of a
written constitution, the High Court, sovereign
states and, arguably, the GG’s reserve powers
Role of Conventions:
1975 revealed a weakness in the Australian model.
Many conventions were broken. The idea that
the upper house has a role in the determination
of who governs is a fundamental change
The House of Representatives
Functions reviewed:
Forum for debate
Education & socialisation
In Australia, how does practice fit theory?
Legislative Theory & Practice
Parliament should initiate, deliberate
and pass bills
Cabinet initiates most bills based on
party policy and expert advice
Bills originate from government &
ordinary MP’s drawing on a variety
of sources.
Private Members’ Bills are rarely
Thorough scrutiny and amendment
ensures bills are of high quality
Opportunity for deliberation is limited
by cabinet control of Standing
Orders & use of gag, guillotine
and flood-gating
Lack of scrutiny results in poor
Much legislative power is delegated
to the Public Service
Representative Theory & Practice
Four views of representativeness
Delegates who act to express the will
of the electorate
Trustees who act in the best interests
of the electorate
Partisans who act to support party
Mirrors of society – groups in society
are reflected in the make up of the
The single member preferential system
benefits major parties– it is therefore
good at expressing majority will but
poor at providing a voice for minorities
Members are partisans under party
discipline (more so for ALP)
Standing Orders provide limited time
(petitions, grievances etc) for
members to act as delegates or
Members are strongly representative of
the male middle class from farming,
legal & educational backgrounds. Few
blue collar, small business, indigenous
and female viewpoints are expressed
More Women are gaining seats (about
Responsibility Theory & Practice
Parliament “makes the Gov’t”
Government must hold the
confidence of the House
Ministers are Collective
Responsible as a whole for
government action and can be
dismissed as a group by a
motion of no-confidence
Ministers are Individually
Responsible for their
departments and their personal
conduct and can be dismissed
by a censure motion
Party discipline and the
majoritarian electoral system
leave little room for parliament
to make the executive
Motions of no-confidence are
easily defeated along party
lines and serve more to
highlight government
Censure motions are also easily
defeated and serve only to
embarrass the gov’t. Individual
ministers only resign when
they become a political liability
to the government
Debate Theory & Practice
Standing Orders provide the
• Question Time
• Address in Reply
• Matters of Public Importance
• Urgency Motions
• Adjournment Debates
• Private Members’ Business
All provide opportunities for
Executive dominance and the
government control of
Standing Orders limit
opportunity for debate
Recent Analysis show the
following time allocations…
• Government Business = 51.9%
• Opposition = 18.2%
• Private Members = 15 %
• Other 8.85%
Summary of Theory & Practice
The House of Representative is clearly
unsuccessful in living up to the theory of the
ideal parliament.
The “Decline of Parliament Thesis” is the argument
that executive dominance is the cause of this
BUT, how realistic is the theory anyway?
The ideal parliament has probably never existed –
even in the pre-party era
The House of Representatives
Parties, voting systems and voter behaviour
have resulted in a “bear-pit” parliament
It is highly adversarial between a strong
government & strong opposition
Point scoring with an eye on the next
election is a major activity in the House
The House Today
BUT it is not all bad. We must take the House on its merits
as a “modern” parliament and not idealise and
romanticise the parliaments of the past.
The House, with its strong parties, does the following very
• Provides one of the world’s oldest and most stable
systems of representative government
• Presents clear policies that can be linked to a mandate –
hence are democratic
• Passes legislation efficiently – a modern society is
complex and needs a growing volume of law to govern it.
The House is excellent at passing law quickly
The House Today
One of the criticisms of the “Decline of Parliament
Thesis” is that parliament has ceased to be a
deliberative institution.
However, much deliberation still occurs but it is in
the Party Room or Caucus of the major parties.
Recent Party Room action by Petro Georgiou is
an example.
The parties themselves have come to replace
much of the original functions of the “ideal
parliament” – whilst parliament itself has
become the arena of “party battle”.
The House Today
Whilst the “Decline of Parliament Thesis” makes some valid
criticisms it tends to emphasis the negative and fails to
account for the positive role of parties as representative,
deliberative institutions.
It also relies too heavily on an illusory “Golden Age” of
parliament that never really existed.
The fact is that the House is a “modern” legislative
institution – an arena in which the parties present