24 August 2015
by Judith Ireland & Fergus Hunter
'Policy paralysis': Tony Abbott's government the slowest for nearly five decades
The Abbott government has come close to the bill-passing low of the 1960s.
The Abbott government is stuck in a "policy paralysis" that has seen fewer bills finalised in its first 700 days in office than any other federal government since the late 1960s.
The Fairfax Media analysis of post-World War II Australian governments was conducted after the federal cabinet was reported to have met without any formal submissions last week and MPs despaired at time-filling debates in Parliament.
According to the analysis, 262 bills have passed both houses of Parliament and been signed by the Governor-General during the Abbott government's first 700 days. This is the lowest number since the Liberal Party's John Gorton became prime minister in 1968 and passed 259 bills over the same time period.
In the same period of Julia Gillard's minority government, 329 bills were ticked off, compared to 397 for Kevin Rudd and 292 for John Howard.
While the Abbott government has had to navigate a "feral" Senate crossbench, the only post-war prime ministers who enjoyed a majority in the Senate when they took office were Ben Chifley and Malcolm Fraser.
As well as less overall success in passing legislation, the Abbott government has also introduced fewer bills to the House of Representatives. A comparison of the first 135 sitting days of the 43rd and 44th parliaments finds that 480 bills were introduced there under Ms Gillard's prime ministership, while 365 - excluding duplicate versions of bills - were introduced under Mr Abbott.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon, who has witnessed the Rudd, Gillard and Abbott governments at close quarters, said while the Gillard government used to "pride itself" on passing many bills that were "pretty average", the pendulum had swung back in the other direction under the Coalition.
"There seems to be a policy paralysis," he said.
Behind-the-scenes, MPs say the House of Representatives has been spending time talking about motions for recently deceased MP Alby Schultz and the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing to distract from the lack of legislative program.
Normally, such motions are discussed in the smaller Federation Chamber so the House can deal with more controversial matters. But the Federation Chamber sat unused for large chunks of the week.
There is also uncertainty over the status of the Coalition's childcare reforms. The Coalition had planned to mount a comeback campaign in 2015 by focusing on families, but the reforms have slipped from top of the government's agenda.
Those in the childcare sector expected the reforms - which will changes to payments from 2017 and a nannies trial from 2016 - to come before Parliament after the winter break. But Social Services Minister Scott Morrison is still in talks with the Senate crossbench about the changes. When asked if Parliament would see the legislation this year, his office did not provide a specific answer.
Labor leader Bill Shorten claimed the government was "paralysed by its infighting".
"Its lack of vision for the future is alarming. It is totally and utterly pre-occupied with itself."
But a spokesman for government Senate leader Eric Abetz said analysing governments based on the number of bills passed "does not compare like with like".
He said that for the first 300 days of the government - until the new Senate was sworn in - Labor and the Greens "consistently blocked all legislation".
"Since the new Senate took office, the Parliament has passed significant reform legislation, including abolition of the carbon and mining taxes, protecting Australia's borders, and tackling the economic malaise we inherited from the Rudd and Gillard governments," a spokesman for Senator Abetz said.
The government also notes that during the mid-Howard years, more than 50 per cent of the Senate's time was spent on government bills. This has dropped to about 40 per cent during the current government because Senate sittings are controlled by votes and there is a growing number of parties and independents.
Another senior government MP rejected the Fairfax Media analysis but said there was "more of an argument" that cabinet processes and consultation with backbench committees - who look at policy and legislation - were not working properly under the Abbott government.