Tony Abbott’s government should be judged on quality, not quantity

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government has passed less legislation than any other in the past 50 years. But does that matter? Prime Minister Tony Abbott arrives for Question Time. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
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Government Senate leader Eric Abetz gave two reasons for the output of the Abbott government Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Even defenders of Julia Gillard’s government say that passed bills is an incomplete measure of a parliament. Photo: Andrew Meares

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This week, Fairfax Media provided observers of Australian politics with some interesting data. It was the number of acts of parliament passed by the Abbott government in its first 700 days compared with the same measure for the last ten Australian prime ministers (not including Bill McMahon, John McEwen and Harold Holt who didn’t serve that long) going right back to Ben Chifley. Yes, the Abbott government is now more than 700 days old.

The data showed that you have to go back to John Gorton in 1968 to find a government that passed fewer bills through the parliament: Abbott 262 compared to Gorton 259. Interestingly, Robert Menzies and Ben Chifley passed even fewer bills: 105 and 178 bills respectively. Times were obviously different.

At first glance all five Labor governments have passed large numbers of bills in their first 700 days, including the record holder, Kevin Rudd, with 397 bills. However, before you jump to conclusions from this observation about Labor governments, in Malcolm Fraser’s first 700 days his government passed the second-largest number of bills, 375.

So what does it all mean? The gathering of the data was stimulated by a report that cabinet had met last week without any formal submissions to consider and by an observation that “MPs despaired at time-filling debates in parliament” these days.

Abbott introduced fewer bills too. The accompanying comment speculated that that this may mean that the Abbott government suffers from “policy paralysis” if these figures are really a measure of “success”.

But this description actually comes from a comment by Senator Nick Xenophon that “there seems to be a policy paralysis”.

But reading more closely you see that Xenophon was actually hedged his bets by also commenting that the previous Gillard government used to “pride itself” on passing many bills that were “pretty average”. So Xenophon is really having it both ways and damning both sides of politics. He also raises the useful question of the quality of bills as well as the quantity.

During the Gillard government, when it was under attack, its defenders used these same statistics to argue that minority government was actually working much better than its detractors were willing to admit.

Rather than being bogged down by leadership conflict and consultation with minor parties and independents it was actually getting things done. It passed 329 bills in its first 700 days. However even Gillard defenders admitted that this was an incomplete measure of a parliament. And that is the point. This raw data must be interpreted carefully.

We often grasp at figures like these because they offer the possibility of an objective measure of the work of a parliament and of the government that depends upon it. But really the objectivity is illusory. If we can’t be objective, however, then must observers of parliament always be subjective?

Statistics like these are worth gathering, and raise interesting questions but they do not lead to easy answers. We need a way to break down these figures into something useful. You can judge an academic researcher by the number of academic papers they produce in their first 700 days. But this should only be the beginning of trying to judge the quality of their work.

For the academic researcher you need a way of judging the quality of these papers. And universities do try to do this by ranking the journals in which these papers are published. Even that is just a rough measure but it is at least a start.

These parliamentary statistics do tell us something, but we don’t know exactly what. Xenophon gives us a clue. How do you weigh the merits of a lot of pretty average legislation against a smaller lot of more noteworthy bills? You can only do this if you were able to grade each piece of legislation. We don’t yet do this.

Parliament has sometimes been compared to a sausage factory with legislation being the sausages. But parliamentary sausages come in different shapes, sizes and quality; and this must be recognised. Just counting the number of sausages without regard to their qualities is an exercise of limited usefulness.

In the particular case of the apparently low productivity of the Abbott government the reactions to the information were all self-interested. The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, agreed that the government was paralysed and suggested that the cause was infighting.

Government Senate leader Eric Abetz offered two explanations. The first was that for its first 300 days, until July 2014, the Abbott government had been blocked by a hostile Labor-Green Senate. But, of course, other governments, including the Rudd government, also had to face a hostile Senate in their early days. That cannot be the full answer.

The second was that since then the legislation passed had included “significant reform legislation”. If we had a legislative grading system like the system for grading academic papers then Abetz may have argued that the A-grade quality of the legislation (abolition of the carbon and mining taxes, etc.) made up for the relatively small number of bills. That is a proposition that cannot be dismissed, and deserves testing. But we have no objective methodology by which to do this at the moment.

These statistics are not irrelevant but they are raw data which needs sophisticated processing. Governments and parliaments should be judged on the whole of their work and the quality of that work. A good research project is waiting. In the meantime parliament itself should attempt to grade its own legislative output so that the public can better come to grips with statistics like these.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.

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