Parliamentary Research Topics
The Parliamentary Studies Centre is currently managing the Australian Research Council project on ‘strengthening parliamentary institutions’, which is co-sponsored by the Department of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia.
The lead researchers of this project are as follows:
- Norman Abjorensen, Research Director
- Dr Phil Larkin, convenor, Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Canberra.
- Catherine Cornish from the House of Representatives
- David Sullivan from the Senate
Topics and research projects nominated by ACT Legislative Assembly
1. Inquiry recommendations: matching quantity to quality
Themes: transparency, accountability, democratic governance; policy and programme impact
The ACT Legislative Assembly has a strong committee system which, in this small jurisdiction, can make an influential contribution to the governance of the Territory. The aim of this project will be to review the success of the committee system through an evaluation of quantitative data (government responses to report recommendations) and qualitative data (interviews with committee and executive MLAs and departmental heads).
Project leader: Grace Concannon
Research officer: Val Barrett
2. Reflections on self-government – the promise and the practice
Themes: democratic governance; institutional capacity
The desirability of self-government for the Australian Capital Territory was debated at the time, but with the establishment of the ACT Legislative Assembly in 1989 new democratic possibilities arose. Debates in the lead-up to self-government in the Australian parliament and in the public arena give some insight into the democratic vision for the ACT. While ideals of democracy shaped the system of electoral representation, legislative processes and the practices of government accountability, the Assembly has also evolved and improved its democratic practice.
This project will reflect on the ideals that were privileged at the inception of the new parliament and consider what has changed. As well as provide insights into the functioning of a late 20th century parliament, the project will also offer an opportunity to reflect on the difficulties that can arise for new and establishing parliaments.
Project leader: David Skinner
Research officer: Gael Hardgrave
3. Continuous improvements in accountability practices: examples from a small parliament.
Themes: accountability; transparency
As a small unicameral parliament, accountability practices are a priority and regularly reviewed by the Assembly. The committee system plays a key role in achieving accountability by providing capacity to scrutinise the activities of government.
This system in the Legislative Assembly includes a number of features:
- Chairs elected by the committee, with a convention of there being opposition chairs on key scrutiny committees;
- "Proportional" representation on committees where practicable;
- Government responses to committee reports (with Government agreed expectation of a three month timeframe) and action taken detailed in annual report statements;
- Regular debate in Assembly on report findings;
- Self-referral capacity;
The project will examine the development of these mechanisms and assess their effectiveness in improving transparency of the parliamentary process by ensuring that the executive are accountable to the elected representatives.
Project leader: Janice Rafferty
Research officer: Celeste Italiano
4. Participation of the people: public engagement with the Legislative Assembly
Themes: participation; inclusion
The effectiveness of a committee inquiry can often depend on the level of public interest and participation. This project would seek to assess the nature of public participation in the inquiry process and would include interviews with key organisations in the ACT who regularly provide submissions to parliamentary inquiries. Strategies for improving public engagement with the work of committees would be a desirable outcome.
Project leader: Hamish Finlay
Research officer: Nicola Derigo
5. Call for a division: Women representatives in the ACT Legislative Assembly
Theme: representation, inclusion
The ACT has three multi-member electorates and uses a proportional representation voting system (Hare Clarke). Candidates from under-represented groups are more likely to reach a quota under this system.
Since 1989, a large number of women have been elected members of the Legislative Assembly. Two women have held the position of Chief Minister and there have been several ministers and one woman who have taken a role in the Speaker’s chair.
This project assesses the representative roles women have assumed in the Assembly as committee chairs [nos of] and legislators [nos of bills presented, etc]. It considers the question of whether women representatives make a different contribution to the work of parliaments [qualitative analysis of inaugural (not maiden!) speeches, MPIs, amendments; motions presented]
Project leader: Dr Sandra Lilburn
Research officer: Neal Baudinette
6. The effect of scrutiny of government statutory appointments
Theme: oversight, accountability, transparency
The ACT is the only jurisdiction in Australia that has a legislative requirement for the government to refer all proposed statutory appointments to an appropriate Legislative Assembly Committee. This project could investigate how this process has operated, whether it has identified any issues with government appointments, and whether it has deterred any “jobs for the boys” type appointments. Minutes and correspondence between the Committees and the Executive can be examined, and former Ministers and Committee chairs could be interviewed to assess their view of the legislative requirement.
Project leader: Tom Duncan
Research officer: Celeste Italiano
7. The Scrutiny of Bills and Subordinate Legislation Committee – the quiet achiever?
Theme: oversight, accountability, transparency, legislation
(a) The Assembly has had a scrutiny of bills and subordinate legislation (in various forms) since 1989. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that it results in much better legislation for the Territory, and a great number of government amendments to Bills are moved solely because it has been raised by the scrutiny committee. This project would examine and attempt to quantify what effect the committee is having on legislation - how many bills are being amended, and what other changes are occurring as a result of the committee’s work.
(b) In relation to subordinate legislation considered by the committee, it would involve an analysis of the Scrutiny Committee’s comments on subordinate legislation during the most recent Assembly, including a categorisation (and an indexing) of comments by reference to common themes. Such a project would also form the basis of an ongoing categorisation of the Committee’s comments, which could then inform a regular reporting by the Committee on its work.
The project could also involve an analysis of the responses to the Committee’s comments.
(a) Peter Bayne
(b) Stephen Argument
Research officer: Anne Shannon
8. Legislation made by the Legislative Assembly
Theme: transparency, legislation
The Legislative Assembly has, since 1989, passed into law 153 Bills that were introduced by non-Executive Members. This represents 10.9% of all legislation made by the Assembly, which is a remarkable high statistic in Australian Legislatures. It reflects the fact that for most if it’s existence, the Legislative Assembly has had minority government. This project would examine the process that led to so many private members Bills being passed into law, and look at the impact of some of the laws.
Project leader: Max Kiermaier
Research officer: Anne Shannon
Topics and researchers sponsored by the House of Representatives
1. Ali, M.; The Perception of the Ethical Standards of Members
The actions of Parliamentarians are being scrutinised more than ever, through a wider range of mediums, and thus by a wider range of individuals and organisations. The public’s perceptions, developed through media coverage of politics are heavily influenced not only by the media outlets themselves, but also by the widespread perception that elected officials should act in the most ethical and accountable way. This paper aims to discover how the public perceive MPs in the accountability and ethics context, what factors influence these perceptions and how they can be improved for increased confidence in the parliamentary process.
2. James, C.; Government Responses to Committee Reports
- Authority/history of the requirement for government to respond to Committee reports within a certain timeframe
- Form of government responses
- Importance of government responses and their role in evaluating the effectiveness of Committees
- Case study of whether government responses lead to actual policy change by following-up some specific recommendations from Education and Vocational Training Committee reports: have any of the recommendations been implemented, and if so, how?
- Ideas for improving the government response rate.
3. Leyne, S.; The Process of Involving the Community in Parliamentary Committees
Why do we need the community involved in parliamentary committees? An analysis of innovative methods of involving community groups in parliamentary committee systems with particular reference to the involvement of minority groups and groups with limited resources. This paper will discuss current practices, including addressing who is excluded from the committee process by these practices.
4. Monk, D.; Committee effectiveness
Due to the flexible nature of committee work, I propose that they do not have one particular measure of effectiveness. I propose collecting ‘satisfaction data’ from stakeholders:
- Government (acceptance rates of recommendations)
- Legislature (surveys of ex MPs and Senators)
- Interest groups (surveys)
- The general public (surveys outside Canberra).
- Performing well from the perspective of one of these stakeholders demonstrates effectiveness. Further, I will analyse data to examine the relationship (if any) between stakeholder satisfaction and inquiry characteristics, such as:
- Senate/House committees
- Press coverage
- Innovative inquiry strategies.
A start might be to analyse the acceptance rates of recommendations (data readily available).
5. Overs, A.; Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Committee and government responses
The CITA Committee has not had a government response for over four years (that’s four reports for three major inquiries).
However, the government portfolio has made policy changes that reflect the committee’s recommendations. Other bits and pieces have also happened in industry that demonstrate that the inquiry process has been effective.
I’m going to put together a narrative or time line of reports and subsequent policy changes and other events that essentially constitute a de facto government response, and show the value of the committee’s work.
6. Palmieri, S.; Mapping the Presence of Women in Parliamentary Committees
Women’s representation in the House of Representatives has increased steadily over the past twenty years. Today, women represent almost 25 per cent of the House, compared to just 6 per cent in 1987. Accordingly, women have become increasingly present in parliamentary committees: in 2007, women are represented on every House and Joint parliamentary committee, bar that concerning Members’ Interests. This paper intends to map the progress of women’s participation in parliamentary committees, noting the committees they have most frequently participated in and those in which they have played a leadership role (i.e. chaired). Arguments that women tend to be represented more often in the so-called ‘soft’ portfolios such as family and community affairs will be tested.
7. Palmieri, S.; Evaluating Committee Performance: Can Effectiveness be Measured?
Parliamentary committees allow Members from all parties to engage a range of stakeholders on an issue of national significance, and in the process, learn a great deal—not only about that issue, but about each other. Yet curiously, the effectiveness of parliamentary committees continues to be called into question. Media reports, for example, tend to rely on the proportion of committee recommendations accepted by Government as an ‘indicator’ of effectiveness. This paper intends to explore ways in which we might conceive of parliamentary committee ‘effectiveness’ in perhaps less quantifiable terms and come to a better understanding of the value and purpose of these committees.
8. Rodrigues, M.; Parliamentary inquiries as a form of policy evaluation
The literature on Australian parliamentary committees tends to focus on Senate committees and their participatory function in ‘bringing parliament to the people’ and their scrutiny function in attempting to hold the executive accountable to the parliament. This paper examines the method of inquiry practiced by House of Representatives general purpose standing committees as a form of policy evaluation and assesses its contribution to the policy making process. The paper argues that the method of inquiry employed by these committees is consistent with what may be described as ‘proactive evaluation’ which values evidence based practice and promotes reflexive policy learning. This inquiry approach provides an important but often neglected contribution to public policy. The paper also reflects and makes observations on the use and nature of evidence in the inquiry process with reference to the law of evidence and evidence-based policy.
9. Swoboda, K.; Member Attendance at Public Hearings
Participation in parliamentary committee business is an accepted and important part of a member’s parliamentary work. With the exception of the chair and deputy chair, members are not paid for their committee work. The objective of this project is to examine opportunities for members to contribute to the work of the House’s standing committees through their participation at public hearings. Issues to be examined include how committees use sub-committees to undertake their work and whether a member’s pattern of committee work has changed.
Hansard records of member attendance at public hearings will form the basis for data collection. Other information already collected, such as outputs relating to committee business, will also be used. In the first instance it is proposed to examine the work of the House’s standing committees in two parliaments, 41st (2005-2007?) and 36th (1990-1992)?
10. Worthington, G.; House of Representatives’ Consideration in Detail of Appropriation Bills
The paper provides a brief survey of the arrangements used by the House of Representatives to consider appropriation bills in detail and canvasses proposals for amending current procedures to improve opportunities for members to scrutinise these bills. Since federation, the consideration in detail of appropriation bills has been conducted by committees in various arrangements.
In considering specific advantages of past practices, current arrangements and future proposals, the paper considers how accountability might be promoted through opportunities for better access to information for members within limitations such as available time, member interest, duplication of process (in relation to Senate estimates) and in what sense the identified limitations are valid considerations.
11. Atkin, M. Case Study – Child Custody Inquiry 2003
12. Baczynski, J. House committee use of information communications technology
13. Boulin, F. A conceptual framework for the development of parliamentary institutions
14. Cornish, C. Parliament to the people and back again
15. Dacre, A. Increasing our representativeness
16. Dacre, A. and Clegg, A. How representative is our parliament, its chambers and its committees
17. Elder, D., Cornish, C. and Morris, J. Capacity building in developing parliaments
16. Monk, D. A statistical analysis of government responses to committee reports
18. Wright, B. Patterns of change: Parliamentary Privilege
Topics and researchers sponsored by the Senate
1. Elliot, C; Putting your best policy forward: senators' use of the Private Senators' Bill
2. Evans, H.; The effect of the government majority in the Senate on parliamentary accountability
3. Grant, R. & Ryall, G; Can we account for parliamentary committees? A survey of committee secretaries
Dr Richard Grant and Mr Glenn Ryall (Senate Committee Office)
The performance of Australia's federal parliamentary committees is an issue that has been given little direct attention. The analysis of committees tends to be on their powers and examples that showcase their ability to promote public debate and scrutinise and impact on the activities of the executive. It is in this context that reference is sometimes made to a committee inquiry's effectiveness. This lacuna on the issue of performance is not accidental—it reflects the difficulty of defining a basis for exactly what constitutes the effectiveness of a committee inquiry and of systematically measuring these indicators.
This article looks at some of the dilemmas and possibilities in devising a standard for evaluating federal parliamentary committee inquiries. It presents the results of a survey of current federal parliamentary committee secretaries on the merit and applicability of 40 possible indicators for assessing committee inquiries' effectiveness. The findings respond to several questions. In assessing the performance of committee inquiries, should greater emphasis be placed on policy outcomes flowing from reports' recommendations or an assessment of reports' outputs regardless of governments' subsequent action or inaction? Should we equate performance with high parliamentary and media impact? Should performance consider the input, efficiency and opportunities for participation in the inquiry process? Do the opinions of inquiry participants and the public at large matter in assessing of an inquiry's performance? The underlying question is whether it is possible to evaluate committee inquiries on a systematic basis given difficulties in applying many performance indicators and the vastly different scope and topic of these inquiries.
4. Griffith, O; Parliament and the internet
Mr Owen Griffith (Senate Committee Office)
Internet media has recently moved towards what has been called 'Web 2.0', characterised by online communities, user-generated content and participatory media. Successful websites include myspace, youtube, digg and wikipedia. Traditional media companies have also embraced aspects of this change, by including blogs, user comments and polls on their websites and welcoming user submissions of footage. As these new forms of media increase in influence, what are the possible implications for the operation of Parliament, including parliamentary education, public awareness of issues and parliamentary inquiries? What are the potential opportunities and risks? How are foreign Parliaments reacting to these technologies? Can participatory media be used to reconnect Parliament with a disengaged public?
5. Holland, I. & Woodbury, J; Committees: making better legislation
Dr Ian Holland (Secretary, Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, IT and the Arts) and Ms Jo Woodbury (Senate Committee Office)
7. Laing, R.; The case AGAINST extra-parliamentary watchdogs on the conduct of members of parliament
Dr Rosemary Laing (Deputy Clerk of the Senate) (proposed for 2008)
There have been several recent papers and reports about the need for a bureaucratic ethics officer/apparatus to monitor the conduct of members of parliament. An article by Andrew Fraser in The Canberra Times on 16 March 2007reported work by Stephen Bartos and John Uhr in this area.
The case against such a model needs to be put from the parliamentary perspective. There are already lessons to be learned from state anti-corruption bodies and the threat they pose to our traditional understanding of such concepts as separation of powers and parliamentary privilege. The strengths and weaknesses of the "looking after our own" model also warrant study.
8. Paull, J.; Scrutiny of delegated legislation in the Senate: is it still effective?
Ms Janice Paull (Senior Research Officer, Regulations and Ordinances Committee)
On 11 March 2007, the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances celebrated its 75th birthday. Since 1932 it has been the only body within the Commonwealth Parliament responsible for any systematic examination of delegated legislation, albeit against principles that have restricted that scrutiny to technical issues affecting personal rights and parliamentary propriety. The paper will, through the work of the committee, examine the effectiveness of the Senate’s oversight of the Parliament’s delegation of legislative power.
A comparison of the structure and experiences of the other Australian legislative scrutiny committees will be included in this assessment.
8. Morris, J. and Power, S. Factors which affect participation in Senate committee inquiries
Topics and researchers sponsored by the Parliamentary Library
1. Harris-Rimmer, S.; Human Rights and the Legislative Process
Ms Sue Harris-Rimmer, Previously published by the Parliamentary Library
This paper aims to provide an overview of Bills introduced in the last twelve months which raised human rights issues in order to provide an easy reference point and a comparative overview. The Parliamentary processes the Bills went through are set out, plus any amendments and the final votes. Are there new trends in the way rights issues are dealt with as a result of a Government majority in both Houses? Or is any debate on human rights issue-specific?
This is also a new area of academic inquiry. The Australian Research Council has awarded the University of Melbourne a grant to investigate how effective legislative scrutiny mechanisms have been in practice. The project is investigating:
1. To what extent does a culture of rights operate in Australian legislatures?
2. To what extent are parliamentary processes capable of identifying the rights implications of legislative proposals?
3. To what extent do parliamentary processes lead to deliberation about rights issues?
4. To what extent are diverse conceptions of rights represented in Australian parliaments?
5. How do differences in parliamentary processes affect answers to these questions?
A list of current academic research into the area of legislatures and human rights is provided.
Topics and researchers sponsored by the Department of Parliamentary Services
1. Buckmaster, L. & Thomas, M.; Expertise and the Parliament
Luke Buckmaster and Matthew Thomas, The parliament increasingly calls upon experts from a variety of fields to help in its deliberations on important matters of public policy. However, there has been very little public discussion about precisely what constitutes an expert or expertise. This is an important omission given that frequently (and confusingly for many) expertise is mobilised by both sides in a given debate.
This points to the need for a greater understanding of how expertise is defined, the different types of expertise available and how parliamentarians and others might decide between different types of expertise in making decisions about various issues.
The paper would attempt to enhance understanding of these issues through an examination of recent research (and other literature) into the role of expertise in politics, the work of parliaments and the development of public policy.
2. Miskin, S. & Lumb, M.; Snapshot of the Parliament: 1988 and 2008
Sarah Miskin and Martin Lumb
Comparison of demographic information relating to MPs in the 35th Parliament and the 42nd Parliament: age, qualifications, gender, ethnicity.
3. McKeown, D. & Lundie, R.; Crossing the floor in the 41st Parliament
Deirdre McKeown and Rob Lundie
In July 2005 the Howard government gained control of the Senate but party discipline appeared to decline as a number of government members and senators crossed the floor during this period. This paper analyses the instances of crossing the floor in the 41st Parliament and considers the Howard government’s control of the Senate in an historical context. The paper also builds on the authors’ previous publication on instances of crossing the floor in the federal Parliament from 1950 to 2004.
4. McKeown, D. & Lundie, R.; Conscience votes during the Howard Government
Deirdre McKeown and Rob Lundie
The decision by a party or the party leader to grant a conscience vote is a political rather than a parliamentary action. Since 1996 the main parties have granted members of parliament a conscience vote on four bills. The issues being decided by conscience votes in the 40th and 41st parliaments were very different to those of previous decades. This paper builds on the authors’ earlier publication which included historical data on conscience votes in the federal parliament and analyses some of the interesting trends that have emerged in recent votes.
5. ‘The Parliament and the People’
On 9 May it will be twenty years since the Queen opened the ‘new’ Parliament House. To mark that event it is proposed to write a Parliamentary Library Research Paper, tentatively entitled, ‘The Parliament and the People’.
One distinctive feature of the Australian Parliament is its relative accessibility for most Australians, something that has been commented on by international visitors who contrast this national legislature with those in their home countries. The proposed paper would focus on this remarkable aspect of our Parliament which, despite the international need for much greater security of such buildings, is visited by many ‘ordinary’ Australians in the course of a year, with minimal official hurdles placed in their way.
The paper would be divided into a number of sections, including:
- Knowledge (visits by children, tourists, Parliament on the Internet, etc)
- Links with electorates (MPs and tour groups, school bands)
- As a venue (e.g. university graduations)
- Part of the parliamentary process (participation in committee work)
- Democracy at work (e.g. protests)
- Canberra links (e.g. garden visits during Floriade, joggers, tennis players)
- Commerce (e.g. shop and cafeteria, visits by taxis)
- Employment (‘bigger than many country towns’)
There would be a strong emphasis on the ‘human interest’ aspect of the Parliament designed to be of interest to Australians beyond Canberra and Parliament House.
It would be expected that the paper would be published on 9 May 2008.
Parliament and sources of information: research services - Sarah Miskin
Shifts in parliamentary behaviour and how it is dealt with - Sarah Miskin