Key facts about the Australian Parliament
Australia is a Federation with three levels of government – Federal, State and Local. Most of RESULTS’ work is with the Federal Government, as it has the power in international relations under the Australian Constitution.
The Federal Parliament consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The House of Representatives has 150 members who each represent an electorate with a similar population size (on average close to 160,000 residents). Each term for a Member of the House of Representatives is three years.
The Senate has 76 members, with 12 Senators from each State and two from each Territory. Each term for a Senator is six years. At a general election, the public votes for all members of the House of Representatives and half of the Senate.
The Prime Minister and Cabinet are drawn from the current Members of Parliament. A Minister may be from either the House of Representatives or the Senate, and the Prime Minister must be a Member of the House of Representatives.
The party or coalition of parties with the majority of seats in the House of Representatives forms the Government of the day.
How MPs and Senators have influence
The key role for both Houses of Parliament is to consider and vote on legislation. MPs usually vote according to their Party position on legislation, but can influence the content of Bills that the two Houses of Parliament consider through the review of Bills by Parliamentary Committees, and through discussing proposed Bills with members of their parties.
Members of Parliament can also have an influence on Government and party policy by their work on Parliamentary Committees which undertake inquiries on policy issues, through their role on internal party policy committees, and through advocating positions in their speeches to Parliament or in their comments in the media.
Opportunities for members to speak and raise questions
Members of Parliament can ask questions of Ministers, either on notice or without notice. A member submits a question on notice in writing, and the Minister’s reply is also in writing. Both the question and response are recorded in Hansard (the record of Parliamentary proceedings). Members of Parliament ask questions without notice in the Question Time period which takes place each afternoon in both houses. A member asks the question orally, and the response is immediate.
Questions on notice can be valuable in obtaining factual information about the progress in implementing a Government policy initiative, the level of spending on a program, or the results that a program has achieved so far.
Questions without notice are more likely to involve both Government and Opposition members making rhetorical points.
Senators can also ask questions at Estimates hearings. These hearings consider spending and policy decisions for government agencies in more detail, and are held in early June (immediately after the Federal Budget, for two weeks), October and February (for one week in each case).
Members and Senators can move motions, which are statements by each house of parliament. A motion is not binding on the government, but a statement that obtains cross-party support would indicate to government the strength of public and parliamentary support for a particular issue or action.
Members and Senators can make short speeches on topics of interest to their electorates. In the House of Representatives, Members can make speeches of between 90 seconds (Statements by Members) and five minutes (Adjournment or Grievance speeches). In the Senate, the equivalent speeches are Senators’ Statements or Adjournment speeches. A short speech can have an impact, as a large number of members of the public will view a video of a short speech on members’ Facebook pages.
A recent example of a short speech is this address by Kelvin Thomson MP (ALP, VIC) in the House of Representatives on 16 September 2015.
“I had the pleasure yesterday of meeting with one of my constituents, Josh Morgan, who is doing outstanding work as a volunteer with RESULTS, as well as Murray Proctor, who is a global health consultant for RESULTS International (Australia). They are a movement of passionate committed everyday people and an active member of the Australian Council for International Development and the Campaign for Australian Aid, working internationally with RESULTS counterparts in the ACTION Global Health Advocacy Partnership on improving access to health, education and economic opportunity.
From 25 to 27 September, leaders are gathering to endorse the sustainable development goals, or global goals, which the UN development program calls:
A historic pledge to end poverty. Everywhere. Permanently.
They say we cannot achieve sustainable development goal 3, which ensures healthy lives and promotes wellbeing for all at all ages, without increased access to vaccines against preventable diseases and treatments of epidemics like HIV, TB and malaria amongst the poorest and most remote people in the world, including in our region. They have urged that funding for the aid program be reinstated to 0.3 per cent of GNI by 2018-19. I support this. I think that aid cuts are foolish. In fact, they proved to be one of the drivers of the regrettable flight of asylum seekers 3
Last updated September 2015
from refugee camps to Europe that we are seeing now. I think that we need to have an aid budget that reflects our commitment to people in need abroad.
RESULTS has also expressed the opinion that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in its current form, has the potential to disadvantage the least developed countries in our region by reducing access to affordable medicines and vaccines. They believe that the Trans-Pacific Partnership has the potential to reduce the impact of Australia’s aid investment in the region, both bilaterally and multilaterally. I want to indicate that I share their concern about evergreening, patent abuse, special exclusivity, data exclusivity and patent linkage as well as investor-state dispute settlement issues in current and future trade deals. I call on the foreign minister to publicly state the government’s position regarding the impact of these on the effectiveness of Australian aid dollars.
Yesterday, I also had the pleasure of meeting with Alan Kirkland, the Choice CEO, as well as public health expert Dr Deborah Gleeson of Latrobe University, who expressed similar concerns about the impact of the TPP on the extension of biologics. (Time expired)”
Why we hold meetings with MPs
As the examples above show, all Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate have opportunities to influence colleagues and the public through speaking in Parliament, to colleagues and in the news media or in their electorate newsletters.
Members who are on relevant Committees may raise questions and include relevant conclusions in the Committee reports. As RESULTS is now experiencing with the new Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into nutrition, RESULTS can even have an influence on what an inquiry will cover, by briefing the Chair of a Committee when a new inquiry is planned.
When a few people take the time, especially as volunteers, to raise a specific issue with a Member of Parliament, this is a strong demonstration of support for action on that issue. If we are meeting with a number of MPs, this would create momentum for action as MPs share with each other the types of issues constituents are raising with them.
What are some common questions and comments from MPs, and how do we respond.
If this is the first time we have met with a Member of Parliament, he or she may ask: “Can you tell me more about your organisation?” We can now answer…
RESULTS is a movement of passionate, committed, everyday people.
Together we use our voices to influence political decisions that will bring an end to poverty.
As volunteers, we receive training, support and inspiration to become skilled advocates.
In time, we learn to effectively advise policy makers, guiding them towards decisions that improve access to health, education and economic opportunity.
Together we realise the incredible power we possess to use our voices to change the world.
“Have you also spoken to (Minister, Shadow Minister, or Chair of Committee) on this issue?” In many cases, the answer is “Yes, we have a meeting scheduled,” or “We are planning to have a meeting with this person.” In addition, we can say “We would also like to obtain your support for action on this issue, as it is important that the Government hears from as many parliamentarians as possible that now is the time to take action.”
“I am supportive on the issue you have raised, but what can I do as an individual?” As noted above, all MPs can ask questions in Parliament, make short speeches or raise the issue with colleagues.
“Why should we support this form of aid or this organisation instead of other types of aid?” We can agree that the other types of aid are important, and also emphasise the particular benefits to the poorest people, or the high level of unmet needs, for the particular programs we are advocating.
“Should we instead be concentrating on addressing trade, economic management or corruption instead of focusing on a particular form of aid?” In response to these comments, we can say: “All of these issues are relevant to economic development and poverty reduction, but our proposal will address directly a large unmet need for a service, or tackle a disease which is costing unnecessarily millions of lives.”
“We would like to do more, but this is not possible given the Budget situation.” Primarily, we can emphasise that the Australian Aid Program is a small proportion of the Federal Budget (just under 1% in 2015-16). “Even with the growth in aid we are requesting for the next four years, the aid program will increase to about 1.3% of the Budget, so we are not proposing any large diversion from other government programs.”
Role of Government Agencies/ Decision making around aid
Role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)
DFAT is the Government agency which is responsible for Australia’s diplomatic representation in other countries, trade policy and negotiations, participation in international agreements, and the Australian overseas aid program.
From 1974 to 2013, a separate agency in the Foreign Affairs portfolio (known as AusAID from 1995 to 2013) managed the Australian aid program.
Since 2013, the role of managing aid has been re-absorbed into the central part of DFAT, with the divisions of DFAT responsible for different regions also being responsible for country aid programs, and a Development Policy Division being responsible for coordination and policies for different sectors of the aid program.
Key features of the Australian aid program
Australia’s international development assistance consists of the following types of programs:
Country programs: These are programs which Australia provides as an individual donor to individual countries, taking account of Australia’s capacity to assist and the needs of each country. These are also described as bilateral programs.
Emergency and humanitarian aid: This is a provision for Australia to assist in emergency situations (eg, natural disasters, armed conflicts) affecting poorer countries.
Multilateral agencies: These are contributions to agencies which operate throughout the world or serve a region as a whole. Australia’s contributions to these agencies are not earmarked for any particular country.
Aid policy and administration: This provision covers the costs of operating the aid program and advising the Minister for Foreign Affairs on priorities for aid.
DFAT relies on a range of delivery partners to provide the aid program, including Australian and international businesses, non-government organisations, host government agencies and in some cases other Australian Government agencies.
How are decisions made about what Australia’s aid program looks like, and how much money is spent?
In the Budget process each year, the Minister for Foreign Affairs will present a submission to Cabinet requesting an overall amount for the Australian aid program and priorities in the use of aid in the coming financial year.
A Committee of Cabinet, the Expenditure Review Committee, considers this proposal, and will advise the Minister of the agreed amount for aid in the coming year (which may be lower than the Minister’s request).
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and DFAT make decisions on how to allocate the agreed amount of the aid program between different countries and multilateral programs. The Minister for Foreign Affairs may also go to Cabinet separately to obtain agreement for new multi-year commitments to multilateral agencies or initiatives,
The provision for the overseas aid program is included in the general Appropriation Bills, which the Treasurer presents with the Budget in May of each year, and which the Parliament usually passes by the end of June.
The aid program is not the subject of separate legislation, except for contributions to some multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank or Asian Development Bank. Therefore, MPs cannot vote separately to change the level of aid from the Budget provision.
In the 2015-16 financial year, the provision for overseas aid is $4.05 billion, which is lower than in the preceding three years, when the aid program was just over $5 billion. The provision for country programs is $2.2 billion in 2015-16, emergency and humanitarian programs receive $330 million, and multilateral programs receive $1.3 billion.
What do Parliamentary Committees do, and what influence do they have on government decisions?
Parliamentary Committees examine proposed legislation in more detail, and also undertake more detailed inquiries into policy issues.
The House of Representatives and the Senate each have their own Committees, and Joint Committees consist of members of both Houses of Parliament.
Inquiries into Bills the Government or individual members introduce are usually fairly short (completed within a few sitting weeks), while detailed inquiries into policy issues can run for up to 12 months and involve taking many submissions from members of the public and conducting multiple public hearings.
RESULTS has made submissions to inquiries primarily by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, and to the separate Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The other Committee of interest to RESULTS is the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, which examines all new or amended international agreements which the Australian Government is planning to adopt. This can include agreements to join or re-join international development agencies.
The Government is required to respond to the recommendations of all Parliamentary Committee inquiries, although it is not obliged to adopt the recommendations. If members of a Committee from all parties agree to a report, the Government is more likely to take up its recommendations. At times, the Government will not take up the recommendations of an inquiry immediately, but the recommendations can influence government policy a number of years later (due to changing public views on the issue or different Budget circumstances).
How can the average MP influence Australia’s aid program?
All MPs are able to have an influence on the priorities in the aid program, by:
asking questions on notice in Parliament, or raising questions in Senate Estimates hearings;
making short speeches in the House of Representatives or Senate;
raising the issue with colleagues in Party Room discussions, or through writing to or speaking to the Minister or Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Members of Parliament can also have an influence on Government and party policy by their work on Parliamentary Committees which undertake inquiries on policy issues, through their role on internal party policy committees, and through advocating positions in their comments in the media.