Australian Committee reforms

The Australian general election of 2010 ended with a hung parliament*, but in contrast to the UK the incumbent Labor government had no third party in the lower house with which to go into coalition. Instead, it sought a confidence-and-supply arrangement with four of the six independent members. These members secured, in their agreement with the government, some important parliamentary reforms. I’ve (finally) got around to t these, even if it will only be a cursory look.

The Agreement for a Better Parliament

The way that the government secured two particular independents, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, was with this Agreement for a Better Parliament. This had a number of interesting proposals, the most important of which I’ll list below:

A more independent Speaker: The Speaker and Deputy Speaker, to be of different parties, were not to attend party meetings and the Speaker’s lack of a vote could be paired with the Deputy Speaker who currently can vote. Only the last of those has not been implemented because the opposition refuses to do so. The effects and weaknesses of these changes were seen when the Speaker resigned to spend more time with his party (giving his party another vote in the chamber) and an opposition member has taken the chair. This puts the independence of the Speaker closer to that enjoyed by the Canadian Speaker, though the British Speaker is still ahead in resigning from his party during and after his speakership.

The Reestablishment of a Selection Committee: A Selection Committee was re-established which now exists to select bills to send to Standing Committees to report on. The committee is composed of the Speaker, his deputy, the government and opposition whips, and seven backbench members (two of which are independents). Any member of the committee could request that the bill be referred to a committee, though this has now changed to be a majority decision. This has vastly increased the number of bills being referred for inquiry. While members and ministers were allowed to refer bills for inquiry since 1987, it hadn’t happened until 1994 and from then until 2010 it was rare for more than a few bills to be referred, and even then it was usually used for joint committees. Since the election, more than 25 bills have been referred. This is still much less of a proportion than either New Zealand, the Australian Senate, or the Canadian House. Arguably, you could include the UK in that because in the Commons Public Bill committees exist and bills are referred to them, but they are not permanent or specialist and have a whole host of their own flaws. House committees, like Senate Committees, don’t actually amend the bill itself and merely recommend amendments.

Time limits in Question Time: Questions were to be limited to 45 seconds, answers to 4 minutes and the whole thing was supposed not to extend beyond an hour and a half, answers must now be directly relevant to the question, only one point of order on relevance allowed per question, questions allocated in a proportional manner (including from independents), a supplementary question for the leader of the opposition (an unused procedure in Standing Orders) and speaking from notes was discouraged. While the reforms may have curbed some of the excesses, the average time for a question is not very different from before the reforms were introduced, though answers are shorter: questions have gone down by 2 seconds and answers by thirty seconds on average. I’ve not spent too much time watching Australian Question Time but there does seem to be an issue that ministers’ answers are not always ‘directly relevant’ and the Speaker has stated that he considers it the responsibility of the minister to make their answer directly relevant. No sanctions are available to the Speaker to enforce this.

More Private Members’ Business Considered: Increased time allocated both in the chamber and in main committee (a secondary debating chamber) for private members’ business, with more votes and members’ statements. Time for private members’ business has more than tripled which is a very good thing, and one private members bill has become law this parliament (the last private members bill to receive royal assent was in 2006). The number of 90-second statements has also tripled, which I don’t really see the point of. I’m more in favour of debating chambers rather than echo chambers and statements without questions, responses or other contributions don’t seem to significantly contribute to a coherent debate.

Standing Committee System: The number of House Committees was reduced from 12 to 9, and the number of members from 10 to 7. A corresponding increase was also made in the number of supplementary members who can participate in an inquiry from 2 to 4. The chair of the Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit was to be a non-government member. Committee chairs or deputy chairs may make statements on the floor of the House about inquiries, and the government now must reply to committee reports within six months of their presentation to the House. The Australian House Committee system is still relatively powerless, however. Committees only consider business referred to them by the House or the Selection Committee with the terms of reference negotiated between the committee and the referrer (usually a minister), their non-partisan nature is compromised by the presence of opposition spokespeople taking a third of non-government positions, they can’t amend bills themselves and they don’t get the specialist staff nor the funding that committees do in other parliaments.

I’d like to look into these issues in more detail, but I’ve not got time now unfortunately.

*For a brief time, all the major Commonwealth realms had hung parliaments, but Canada broke the trend in 2011 with a majority Conservative government.
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