Workshop on Party Discipline and the Parliamentary Process

NSW Parliament
Gilbert + Tobiin Centre of Public Law
9.30 am
Mon, 2014-06-23



The workshop started with a keynote lecture from Professor Philip Cowley of the University of Nottingham in the UK. Professor Cowley used his expertise on backbench rebellions at Westminster to demonstrate that dissent was now a regular feature of votes in the UK parliament, but that weak party discipline did not necessarily have a detrimental effect on the parliamentary process. The workshop participants then explored how the opposite feature in Australia – strong party discipline – has affected the way in which Australian parliaments perform their oversight functions.

Dr Fergal Davis outlined how the Australian norm of strong political party cohesion and the absence of dissent might limit the effectiveness of political rights review of legislation. He argued that for political rights review to be successful in the Commonwealth parliament, it will require elected representatives to take a stand in favour of effective scrutiny over party loyalty. However, Professor John Halligan and Richard Reid highlighted the growing trend of ‘dissensus’ in parliamentary committees in Australia, leading to an increased rate of minority reports. This has occurred where committee members have opted to tow the party line, rather than work in a bipartisan relationship with members from opposing parties. Halligan and Reid questioned whether parliamentary committees can still be successful – in terms of their ability to scrutinise government policy – if they can no longer reach consensus. Dr Laura Grenfell outlined the spectrum of political rights review across Australia’s nine jurisdictions. She noted that the recently established Commonwealth Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights had bucked the trend identified by Halligan and Reid, in that it had secured bipartisan support and not yet produced a minority report. In contrast, Grenfell noted that the state and territory parliamentary committees had not established adequate mechanisms to guarantee non-partisan human rights review of all parliamentary bills. The question of bipartisanship was raised again in Dr Gabrielle Appleby’s paper on the absence of parliamentary scrutiny of delegated legislation and in Adele Lausberg’s paper on cross-party collaboration in the Commonwealth parliament. Dr Appleby showed how bipartisan support for delegated legislation which authorises the Commonwealth government to fund certain schemes (for example, the National School Chaplaincy Program) diminishes parliament’s role in scrutinising the executive and creates the need for courts to intervene. Lausberg, in contrast, demonstrated that on rare occasions, individual politicians have broken party ranks to engage in bipartisan behaviour in the form of cross-party collaboration on certain socio-moral issues, such as in legislation safeguarding reproductive rights.

The workshop papers prompted a lively discussion from those who attended, which included the President of the Legislative Council and the Clerks of the Parliaments and the Legislative Assembly in the Parliament of New South Wales. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no consensus was reached on whether the absence of dissent helped or hindered the parliamentary process in Australia, but the workshop opened up a number of debates with which the Parliaments Project will engage over the coming years.

This event was organised by Fergal Davis and Jessie Blackbourn with support from the Centre and UNSW Law. The program for the workshop is available here.