Getting Federal Laws Passed Just Got Harder
The election has dominated the press for several months. Weve watched closely as Labor and the Coalition tried to woo four Independent members in order to get enough votes to form government. On September 7th Labor won.
But how much influence will Labor now have over the passing of new laws? A closer examination of the way Parliament works might be useful.
In Australia, federal Parliament is made up of two Houses, the House of Representative (Reps) and the Senate. The party with the most votes in the House of Reps forms Government, and the other major party becomes the Opposition. The Prime Minister chooses a Cabinet of Ministers, usually from their own party, to be responsible for certain areas, such as Health. Most proposed laws, known as Bills, are introduced in the House of Reps by these Ministers, although private Members (the less senior backbenchers) can also introduce Bills.
A major role of Parliament is to consider Bills, and vote on them. All Members, regardless of party or seating location, have an equal vote. A majority vote in both Houses means that a Bill becomes law (an Act of Parliament). Once passed in the House of Reps, a Bill goes to the Senate for consideration.
Part of that process involves debate. The idea of having an Opposition is that laws proposed by the government are not just automatically passed.
That said, if the party in government won the election with a large majority, there is a pretty good chance that Bills proposed by its Ministers will be passed. After all, its members are generally bound to support Cabinet decisions, even when they personally disagree. Members can choose to cross the floor and vote against their party, but its rare.
However, in this election, Labor didnt win the majority of seats. They scraped into government due to the support of three Independent Members, and the Greens. Neither those Independents nor the Greens have an obligation to support Labor Bills, apart from budget decisions.
Of the 150 seats in the House of Reps, only 72 are actually Labor seats. The Coalition has 73. There are 4 Independents, (3 of whom used to belong to the National party, part of the Coalition) and 1 Green. Nor can Labor rely on numbers in the Senate, where the latest election substantially increased the Greens influence.
Translation; Labor might have won government, but it doesnt have the loyalty of the majority. We can expect more debate, less agreement, and probably fewer Bills becoming law.
Julia Gillard is understandably placing much emphasis on the commitment of Labors backbenchers, whose votes will count in a way they never have before. Absenteeism during voting times will be sternly noted.
Time will tell how efficiently laws are passed during the next 3 years.