The Less Parliament Sits, The Better Off We All Will Be

‘We’re getting on with the job.” This has long been the standard response of Julia Gillard and her leadership team to questions about low poll numbers, the Foreign Minister’s latest tweet, or anything else they don’t want to talk about.

The hung Parliament isn’t gridlocked. Far from it. More than 140 pieces of legislation have passed through both houses. And despite the gauntlet of Bob Katter, Adam Bandt and a motley crew of independents, more than 180 pieces of legislation have gone successfully through the House of Representatives.

A few months ago Treasurer Wayne Swan was bragging this was ”in pretty stark contrast” to the US and Europe, where parliaments have passed fewer laws.

But hold on: why is all this law-making a good thing? (Great! More rules!) The government’s delight at its hectic law-writing schedule must be surprising to those who actually have to deal with the consequences: judges.

Chief Justice of the Federal Court Patrick Keane said earlier this year the ”volume and complexity of federal laws” meant that ”opening the Tax Act [which has blown out to 6000 pages long] is like entering a parallel universe”.

So it’s weird the government thinks placing even more Byzantine restrictions on society and the economy is worth boasting about. Certainly, not every piece of legislation passed has made a new law. Some bills change laws already on the books, others eliminate existing laws. Yet every change has consequences.

Business surveys report a huge increase in the amount of time it takes to monitor regulatory and legislative change. Corporate boards spend more time than ever focusing on legal compliance, instead of on service delivery or innovation.

That’s not just the fault of Gillard’s government. It’s the fault of successive governments, Labor and Coalition, which have steadily increased parliamentary productivity. Now there is an orgy of fresh legislation every year.

And those governments have been egged on by a political culture that favours action – any action – over steady-as-she-goes.

Commentators have recently complained that governments no longer have an appetite for big reform. At least, not like Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard did. Let’s put aside the questionable evidence for this claim. Isn’t it remarkable how so much of this commentary avoids judging the virtues or otherwise of that ”reform”? The criticism seems to be that legislators aren’t pushing through massive change at a sufficient clip. Anything will do. Huge new taxes, or huge new tax cuts. Doesn’t matter. Just as long as they’re huge.

The Parliament and the press gallery are predisposed to like active governments. A great politician is one who changes the country. A great parliament is one that maximises its opportunity to write and pass new laws. Australian political history is one long game of one-upmanship.

Poor old Kevin Rudd took this bias to its logical conclusion. He spun so many government wheels in motion that his successor is only now starting to control its oversized chassis.

The bias towards legislative frenzy is not helped by oppositions that accuse the party in power of being all talk and no action. This was true while Brendan Nelson held the Liberal leadership. But it’s an odd criticism coming from a conservative party. Conservatives believe change for change’s sake is fundamentally bad. The last thing a conservative would want is frenzied reform. ”Do nothing” should be a compliment. Let society evolve by itself.

Just as bizarre are the opposition’s complaints the government hasn’t planned for enough parliamentary sitting days. The government will sit ”only” one in four working days in 2012. But that’s excellent. ”No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session,” wrote a 19th century lawyer. The fewer sitting days the better. The father of liberalism, John Locke, argued that while parliament was better than monarchy, parliamentarians need to be restrained. One way was to limit how often they sat.

Conservatives who understood these issues hoped the 2010 election result might restrain Parliament’s obsessive law-making. Obviously not. If only the hung Parliament was as deadlocked as its critics claim.