The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 15
Legislative Institutions
Campbell Sharman

The legislature is at the heart of any system of representative democracy. It is not only the source of binding rules for citizens but also the most important link between the political community and its government. This puts the legislature on the interface between the government as a set of agencies for making and implementing law under the constitution, and procedures for ensuring that government responds to popular preferences. As such, it embodies much of the ambivalence enshrined within the notion of liberal democracy. Part of its legitimacy derives from its role in ensuring limited government and the rule of law, yet its representative aspect ties its legitimacy to the ability to respond to popular majorities (see Brennan and Hamlin 1993). For parliamentary systems, this tension is compounded by the clash between the expectation that the legislature will maintain a role independent of the executive, and pressure for its operation to be dominated by the government of the day.

Australia's parliaments one federal, six state and two territory legislatures provide good examples of the variety of ways in which these contradictory forces can be accommodated. The development of Australian legislative institutions has been marked by the emergence of strongly disciplined parliamentary parties that have favoured executive dominance, and also by institutional pressures working to limit government control of the legislative process.

As shown by a 1985 review of literature on Australian political institutions (Jinks 1985), the exploration of factors limiting executive influence over parliament had become an important component of the scholarly analysis of the legislative process by the 1980s. This was as a result, in large measure, of the work of Reid epitomised by his paper 'The Trinitarian struggle: Parliamentary–executive relations' (Reid 1973) and his book with Forrest on the federal parliament (Reid and Forrest 1989). The theme of tension between executive control of the legislature and procedures for effective parliamentary scrutiny of bills and government activity has since become a staple for the analysis of Australian parliaments, and is now a regular component of introductory texts on Australian politics (for example, Parkin and Summers 2002). As Smith (1994) points out in a thoughtful and informative survey, this is much more than a reworking of the decline-of-parliament thesis, a proposition that had always raised as many questions as it purported to answer by assuming some golden age of parliamentary independence.

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