On the Hill: The Secret PMB History

‘On the Hill’ has once again changed hands, and I’m going to pre-empt the collective sigh from our readership by making an undertaking not to grease my lips and scuff my knees at the waist of the ALP or the Coalition, not out of a quasi-virtuous appeal to intellectual honesty, but because you can now get your partisan political fix from any of Australia’s esteemed media outlets. I’m going to excavate for you, under-reported issues centering not simply on the chambers of Australian Parliament House, but all of the carpetbaggers, jackals and spineless cretins that hover around the place like the annual swarm of bogong moths that make every minute I spend there a nightmare.

My first column couldn’t go without a mention of the ALP leadership spill, so there it is. Let’s move on.

While most legislation is introduced by a member of the Executive (Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries), there is the Private Members’ Bill (PMB) that is introduced by a member of the Legislature (Member or Senator in their respective chamber). The PMB is a rare creature, due to the fact that its chance of passing is contingent on the goodwill of the Government, for it requires a sponsor in both chambers, and the numbers to pass it.

During John Howard’s eleven year reign, a total of 290 PMBs were introduced, with only six receiving Royal assent (i.e. being made into an Act of Parliament). Of those bills that were passed, all were introduced by members of the Federal Coalition, including three from the Speaker.

During Kevin Rudd’s first tilt at commandeering Australia (almost three years), there were 130 PMBs introduced, with none passed. 28 of those bills were introduced (full or in part) by Opposition members.

The Gillard era saw only 71 PMBs introduced, with six passing both chambers. 26 of those PMBs were introduced by Opposition members, and of those bills that were passed, all but one was introduced by the Greens or Independents, with the remaining one introduced by the President of the Senate John Hogg.

It should be noted, before we continue, that the vast bulk of PMBs that were introduced in all of the above examples never made it to the second reading stage, that is, they were never debated in Parliament. This is owed partly to the fact that there is only a finite amount of time the Parliament has to debate bills, even with the addition of the Main Committee (now Federation Chamber).

The Parliament also has to allocate time for the inevitable condolence motions for dead soldiers and philanthropists, leaving precious little for PMBs. Eating into debate time any further would lead to more howls from the Opposition (ALP or Coalition) that the Government is “guillotining” debate. You can see this phenomenon occurring in all Federal Parliaments, that is, the Opposition having its cake and eating it too.

The issue at heart, though, is the nature of PMBs. The record of the last three Prime Ministers shows that it is only out of political necessity that the Government assists the passage of a PMB. This current Parliament, the 43rd Parliament, the dreaded Hung Parliament, required cooperation between the ALP and the crossbench, meaning that for once in recent memory, genuine PMBs were passed, though in a number dwarfed by Government-sponsored bills.

The introduction of PMBs by Opposition members and crossbenchers is now a statement of political principle, an act of theatrics rivalling Question Time (Questions Without Notice for the Hansard wonks out there), and the terrible record of the past three Prime Ministers demonstrates the hubris each has shown in the legislative arena.

The only remedy would be to allow more time, especially to the Federation Chamber to debate legislation, so the case for now is that only when threatened with losing power will a government assist the passage of bills (e.g. Greens and Oakeshott), and this arrangement seems preferable to the status quo regime of a rubber-stamp parliament.

@DanielPRose
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