PAL 3A ESSAY
By Dylan Morris
Essay question: Discuss the legislative function of the Commonwealth Parliament in theory and practice.
The Australian Commonwealth Parliament was established in our Constitution, which came into effect on the 1st January 1901, when Australia became a Federation. The Constitution is the set of basic law by which the principles, powers and processes of our political system. Australia has a minimalist Constitution meaning we heavily rely on Conventions of the Westminster System. Conventions are the unwritten practices, processes and procedures of the political system which has general acceptance and is consciously followed in society. In theory and practice the ways in which the Commonwealth Parliament functions differs drastically. The legislative function of the Parliament focuses mainly on the activity of debating, scrutinizing and enacting statutes.
The legislative function of the Commonwealth Parliament specifies that Parliament should initiate, deliberate and finally pass legislation. The legislative function is a key role of elected Parliaments. For legislation to be seen as legitimate in democracy it must allow for wide ranging input. In practice the Government does not allow for many opportunities to debate or scrutinize bills and suppresses most available opportunities for this. The legislation does not always allow for wide ranging input as most of the decisions are made by the Cabinet. Party control of the House of Representatives enables the Government to use parliamentary procedures to limit the disapproval from members of the House and to speed up the passage of a bill. The legislation must also be subject to effective scrutiny in its passage through parliament. In reality the Cabinet, mainly the Prime Minister, controls the debate with the use of guillotine and gag to limit time for debate and to allow flood gating of bills. The decline of parliament thesis argues that parliament is merely a rubber stamp for government and specifically the cabinet. The decline of parliamentary thesis highlights the gap between the theory and practice of the legislative function of the Commonwealth Parliament.
Cabinet’s power over legislation in the House of Representatives has a significant role in the decline of parliamentary thesis. Cabinet consists of the council of senior ministers of the Crown, responsible to parliament. The Cabinet is appointed by the Governor-General, on the advice of the Prime Minister. Cabinet is the ‘engine room’ of government. It is the leadership group in the parliament and consists of the Prime Minister and ministers holding major portfolios. Cabinet has several sources of power that grant it a huge advantage over other members in the legislative process. These sources of power are utilised to limit the range of input, limit the disapproval from members of the house and control of the debate. The cabinet has; a near monopoly of expert’s advice from the public service and political advisers, secret deliberation and cabinet solidarity, party loyalty and partisan voting and effective control over the House of Representatives agenda.
Once cabinet adopts a bill, all ministers must publicly support it. Cabinet’s access to expertise allows the government to submit a very large number of bills to the House. By contrast, other non-executive members have limited resources to use in the scrutiny of bills. In 1901, the House of Representatives sat for 113 days during which it considered twenty eight bills and passed seventeen. In 1995, the House sat for seventy days and passed 176 bills. This situation has been prevalent for many decades, in 1944 opposition leader, R.G. Menzies observed that government observed parliament to “...ask as little as possible, be told as little as possible, and vote for the bill quickly”. Menzies comments along with the increased volume of legislation are just one example of how cabinet control has influenced the practice of the...
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