Parliamentary reform is currently a dead subject at the federal level in Australia. The current government, and specifically the current prime minister, is not interested in any reform of Parliament.
Before gaining its majority in the Senate, the government floated two proposals to change the character of the Parliament. One was a change to the system of proportional representation for Senate elections. This scheme aimed at securing a majority in the Senate for the party which wins a majority in the House of Representatives. It was claimed at that time that it was impossible for a government to win a Senate majority with the usual 40-odd per cent of the vote which delivers a House of Representatives majority. In the 2004 election, however, the government won a Senate majority with only 45 per cent of the vote, so the theoretical basis of this proposal was shown to be erroneous. The other proposed change was an amendment of the Constitution to allow the government of the day to pass legislation without it going separately through the Senate, by means of a joint sitting of the Houses without a preceding double dissolution. This was floated by the Prime Minister in 2003 and was investigated by a consultative group of three supposed experts who toured the country. When they reported that such a proposal was unlikely to be passed in a referendum, it was quietly dropped.
Now the government exhibits no interest in changing the Parliament, except for some amendments to the electoral act. The attention of parliament-watchers is now focussed on whether the government will use its majority in the Senate to reverse past reforms.
It is necessary to distinguish between reform and reform, remembering that reform by definition is a change for the better.
In the extensive literature on parliamentary reform, going back to the 1960’s, changes have been proposed to allow parliaments to better perform their legislative functions. Those functions may be summarised as: representing public opinion in all its diversity; passing sound legislation after adequate deliberation; scrutinising government administration; ensuring sound and transparent public financial arrangements; conducting inquiries into matters of public interest; and communicating with the public to allow more informed electoral choices. The measures to achieve improvements in these functions largely centred on enhanced committee systems.
The great difficulty in implementing such measures has been that governments do not want more effective parliaments. Governments regard parliaments as bodies to be controlled. The listed functions, on the contrary, are all about parliamentary control of governments.
Then there is reform, which consists of proposals put forward by governments to increase their control and power over the political process, and particularly over parliaments, to allow them to govern more easily. The past proposals of the current government which have been mentioned fall into the category of this kind of reform.
In this the current government is not unusual. There is a long history of governments not wanting parliaments to be more effective. Holders of ministerial office soon come to view an increase in their own power as the solution to all problems. Legislatures should not get in the way of their beneficent rule. Governments, through their ever-loyal party majorities in lower houses, devote much effort to resisting and suppressing measures by which they might be held more accountable in the parliamentary forum. This is characteristic of all governments at all times, but it is a notable Australian phenomenon, reinforced by the greater control which Australian governments exercise over their backbenchers.
Thus parliamentary reforms of the kind advocated in the academic literature have usually occurred only in upper houses not under government control, where non-government parties have put accountability mechanisms in place, usually over the resistance of the government of the day. This is particularly noticeable in the Senate, which, over long periods of non-government control, has been able to establish an extensive range of accountability mechanisms, especially through its committee system. For example, in 2001 the Senate ordered the continuing publication on the Internet of a list of government contracts worth more than $100,000, in the interest of transparency in public contracting. The government opposed the measure. Had there been a government majority in the Senate, this simple measure would not have come about. Virtually all of the other accountability mechanisms established by the Senate were resisted by governments and were imposed against their will. Other upper houses, notably the NSW Legislative Council, have also followed this path.
Now at the federal level the questions are all about the preservation of existing accountability mechanisms. Will the government, for example, attempt to shut down or restrict Senate estimates hearings, and if so, what can be done to resist this? Will Senate committees be confined to the kind of politically innocuous inquiries which are used by ministers to keep House of Representatives committees busy? Any new reforms are out of the question until the arrival of more favourable parliamentary conditions.
There is a reform agenda still waiting to be taken up when the time is favourable.
Constitutional change: The proposal for a fixed term parliament, which came close to success in 1982-83, would put an end to the prime ministerial power to call early elections at politically convenient times, and encourage a greater degree of independence on the part of government backbenchers. Getting ministers out of the Senate and providing an alternative, committee-oriented career path for senators, could improve the scrutiny performance of that chamber.
Legislative change: Legislation could settle the question of the obligations of public servants and ministerial staff to respond to parliamentary inquiries, and provide a means of arbitrating ministerial claims of immunity from parliamentary disclosure of information.
Institutional change: Parliamentary rules could be altered to give committees and their members greater independence in selecting their subjects of inquiry.
Some of the major reforms could be attached to the change to a republic, which may ultimately be brought upon us by circumstances. All of the items on this agenda have been around for decades. It is a question of taking the opportunity to implement them.