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  •   Home > News > International

    Helen Haines says the current government has gagged debate in parliament more than any government in history. Is that correct?

    Independent MP for the seat of Indi, Helen Haines, says the current government has moved to gag debate in parliament more than any government in history. RMIT ABC Fact Check crunches the numbers.


    The claim

    Independent member for the Victorian seat of Indi Helen Haines has taken to Twitter to criticise the Coalition government's use of so-called "gag motions" to stifle debate in federal parliament.

    Ms Haines was responding to an article published in The Australian newspaper that suggested she had voted with Labor almost 68 per cent of the time over the last parliamentary term.

    In her tweet, Ms Haines argued the data presented in the article was inflated by the inclusion of procedural matters including the gagging of debate in Parliament — a practice she said she normally opposed.

    "This government has moved to gag debate more than any other government in history — more than 340 divisions across the life of the parliament," she said.

    [tweet]

    So, has the current government shut down more parliamentary debates than any other government?

    RMIT ABC Fact Check crunches the numbers.

    The verdict

    Ms Haines's claim is exaggerated.

    The only readily accessible information on gag motions in parliament is available by calendar year, which is an imperfect measure for Ms Haines's claim as it doesn't line up neatly with governments.

    Furthermore, this measure only counts successful gag motions, excluding those that failed, though experts argued this was a reasonable basis upon which to assess the claim.

    Fact Check has analysed the calendar year data since 1901, attributing each year to the parliament or government that accounted for the majority of that year.

    This measure shows the Coalition has used formal "closure motions" 627 times since it was elected in 2013, including 332 times since Mr Morrison's 2019 election victory. Mr Morrison's parliament comes out ahead of all other parliaments on this cumulative measure.

    However, this approach fails to account for the fact that some parliaments lasted less than a year while others stretched into four calendar years. Similarly, the Coalition government that began with the December 1949 election of Robert Menzies lasted 23 years while Gough Whitlam's Labor government lasted just three years from December 1972.

    Hence the only fair way to compare parliaments and full terms of governments is to use averages.

    This analysis shows that since 1901 the highest (imperfect) average for a parliament and the highest (imperfect) average for a government's term in office were both recorded by Labor under Mr Whitlam.

    The second highest average for a parliament was the 46th parliament under Mr Morrison.

    Looking at averages for a government's term in office, the second highest was the Coalition led by Malcolm Fraser from 1976 to 1983 and the third highest was the Coalition led by Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Mr Morrison since 2013. 

    Looking at these measures combined, Mr Morrison has certainly been an enthusiastic gagger of debate, but Mr Whitlam outranks him.

    What does it mean to 'gag debate'?

    Given that Ms Haines's claim related to her voting record in the House of Representatives, Fact Check has limited its analysis to the Lower House.

    Debate and decision-making in the House of Representatives (of which Ms Haines is a member) are governed by a set of rules known as the "standing orders".

    Two standing orders are listed under the heading "Closure of debate". The first is standing order 80 titled "closure of a member speaking" and the second is standing order 81 dealing with "closure of question".

    An information sheet on parliamentary procedure explains that if a motion under standing order 80 is passed it "prevents the member from completing their speech" and if a motion under standing order 81 is passed "the question on the motion being debated must be put to the vote immediately without any further debate or other business intervening".

    The official publication House of Representatives Practice explains in more detail how the two procedures can be used to control or shut down debate in the House. It notes that both were incorporated in the standing orders in 1905 but neither was used until 1909.

    A spokeswoman for Ms Haines sent Fact Check a spreadsheet containing records dating back to federation in 1901. The spreadsheet contained data only for motions under standing order 80, relating to preventing a particular MP from speaking.

    Fact Check considers that the expression "moved to gag debate" used by Ms Haines encompasses both standing order 80 and standing order 81.

    In her statement to The Australian, Ms Haines referred to both "gagging debate" and "gagging members".

    House of Representatives Practice says standing order 81 is "commonly known as 'the gag'".

    Standing order 80 was rarely used at all until the mid 1970s while in recent times it has been used more than standing order 81.

    Government or parliament?

    In her claim, Ms Haines spoke of "any other government in history" but then also referred to the "life of the parliament".The term "government" is frequently used to describe the duration that a political party spends in power while a given parliament refers to the period between elections.

    However, given Ms Haines was elected in 2019 and her comments were made in response to newspaper commentary on her voting record in the 46th Parliament, Fact Check has assessed the claim on the basis of parliament as well as government.

    However, the best data available is broken down neither by parliament nor by government but by calendar year.

    What data is available?

    A spokeswoman for the Procedure Office of the House of Representatives told Fact Check a tally of successful closure motions was available in a consistent time series dating back to federation in 1901.

    Information for the period 1901 to 2017 is accessible in Appendix 20 of House of Representatives Practice. This information is presented for each calendar year. More detailed information is available via Hansard but only by searching its daily records.

    The period from June 1990 to December 2021 is covered in the online editions of "Work of the Session", which breaks down the data into each session of parliament as well as each calendar year.

    The Procedure Office advised that finalised data for February and March 2022 covering the final sitting days of the 46th Parliament were yet to be published online but provided Fact Check with complete figures for this period via email.

    The spokeswoman told Fact Check that the Procedure Office did not hold separate statistics on unsuccessful closure motions.

    Unsuccessful closure motions are recorded in Hansard but are not available in a readily accessible format dating back to 1901.

    Are successful closure motions a good overall measure?

    Ms Haines did not specify that her claim related to successful closure motions only.

    But experts consulted by Fact Check all said her claim could reasonably be assessed on the basis of successful closure motions alone.

    Australian National University lecturer and director of the Centre for the Study of Australian Politics Marija Taflaga told Fact Check this was because federal parliaments had historically been governed by a majority.

    "The minority parliament in the early 1940s and the Gillard government are the only times the government hasn't had a majority on the floor of the House of Representatives," she said.

    "So every time they have put up a gag motion they would have almost certainly won it."

    Dr Taflaga noted there would be exceptions to this in the case of slim majorities, but said this factor would be largely inconsequential, describing it as "noise in the wash".

    Similarly, Greg Melleuish from the University of Wollongong's School of Humanities and Social Inquiry told Fact Check that when the government had control of the House, "it seems highly unlikely that there will be many unsuccessful closure motions."

    "On that basis, I think that using successful closure motions could be seen as a reasonable approach," Professor Melleuish said.

    What the data shows

    The only data readily available to assess every "government in history", as claimed by Ms Haines, is published by calendar year.

    [graph]

    It is clear that during the turmoil that ended with Mr Whitlam's dismissal in November 1975 Labor successfully shut down debate more often than in any other year.

    In second place is 2020 under the Coalition led by Scott Morrison when 139 closure motions were agreed to. The Coalition also holds third place for 1977 when Malcolm Fraser's government moved 123 successful closure motions.

    However, this data does not allocate portions of a year where a change of government occurred mid-year preventing a precise measurement on the basis of "parliament" or "government" as claimed by Ms Haines.

    Nevertheless, Fact Check has assigned years where a change occurred to the party that was in office for the majority of the parliamentary sittings that year.

    On this basis, the 46th Parliament under the Coalition led by Mr Morrison has indeed moved more successful closure motions than any other since federation.

    In the four years from 2019 to 2022 there were 332 successful closure motions.

    [graph]

    The previous record was set by Mr Whitlam from 1974 to 1975 when 301 successful closure motions were moved.

    This compares with an average of 105 successful closure motions across all parliamentary terms since the gag procedures were first used in 1909.

    When comparing Labor and the Coalition since 1944, following the establishment of the modern-day Liberal Party, Labor has averaged 104 successful closure motions per parliament whilst the Coalition has averaged 162.

    When assessed on the basis of government, that is, the uninterrupted period a political party spent in office, the data shows that between the 19th and the 28th Parliaments, when the Coalition held office for 23 consecutive years, it far outstripped any other government with 1,210 closure motions successfully moved.

    The most recent Coalition Government between 2014 and 2022 covering the 44th to the 46th parliaments comes in at second with 627.

    However, this is partly a function of how long these governments spent in office, rather than a reflection of the frequency of their use of closure motions.

    This highlights a key problem in assessing cumulative totals either on the basis of parliament or government: it fails to account for the large variations in duration. 

    Accounting for duration

    By referring to a cumulative total across a parliamentary span, Ms Haines does not capture the important context that the duration of parliaments has varied significantly since federation.

    For example, the 11th Parliament in 1929 was dissolved just 7 months and 10 days after it opened. Meanwhile, the most recent 46th Parliament spanned 33 months and nine days.

    To account for this factor, Fact Check considers it fairer to assess the claim on the basis of the annual average of a parliamentary term.

    On this basis, the picture looks different. Mr Whitlam's Labor government takes the lead by successfully shutting down debate in the parliament an average of 151 times a year during the 29th Parliament.

    The 46th Parliament led by Mr Morrison ranks second with an average of 107 successful closure motions per year. This narrowly leads the 28th Parliament — also under Mr Whitlam — with 103.

    [graph]

    When comparing the record of Labor and Coalition overall on the basis of annual parliamentary averages since 1942, the beginning of the Curtin/Forde/Chifley Labor government, the Coalition comes out ahead with an average of 63 closure motions compared with Labor's 43.

    When comparing governments on the basis of annual averages over their entire terms, the order is again altered with the Labor government under Mr Whitlam remaining in first place, shutting down debate an average of 135 times per year and the succeeding Coalition government under Malcolm Fraser in second with 88.

    The Coalition government under Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Mr Morrison ranks third with 77 closure motions per year agreed to on average throughout their term of government.

    [graph]

    Closure motions and majority on the floor

    There is one further limitation to consider. As Dr Taflaga noted, the shutting down of debate is more difficult to achieve for minority governments.

    This is demonstrated between 2010 and 2013 during the 43rd parliament led by Labor under Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd when there were no successful closures of members and just 10 successful closures of questions.But Labor also fell short of reaching a majority in the House of Representatives during this period winning 72 seats in the 2010 election and thus relying on crossbench support.

    Why the increase?

    The parliamentary data shows an increase in the number of successful closure motions since the early 1970s — most especially with respect to an increase in the use of Standing Order 80 "closure of member" allowing for the interruption of a member's speech.

    Experts consulted by Fact Check said the reasons for this increase were not entirely clear, however, noted there were several factors that may have contributed.

    Professor of history at the Australian National University Frank Bongiorno observed there had been a shift in appetite for debate in the parliament telling Fact Check: "I expect [an increase in the use of closure motions] would reflect the declining tolerance of the parties — and especially governments — for a parliamentary scrutiny," he said.

    "That, in turn, might be connected with the development of the Senate, with its committee system and balance of power situation, as a place for accountability and review."

    "Governments might therefore feel less compunction in using their numbers ruthlessly in the House of Representatives to move things along."

    Dr Taflaga also pointed to a cultural shift of the parliament in the 1970s relating to the constitutional crisis that emerged following the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975 as a potential reason for the increased number of successful closure motions.

    "In the mid-1970s with the election of the Whitlam government, parliament became very acrimonious," she said.

    "After a period where there was a reasonable amount of cross-party discussion — and the fact that so many members of parliament were war veterans who had a shared history of the Second World War — that really broke down following the 1975 crisis."That's basically because the Coalition under both Sneddon and Fraser never really accepted the legitimacy of the Labor government to govern — which is why the crisis emerged."

    Principal researcher: Sonam Thomas

    Editor's note (May 12, 2022): Following the publication of this fact check, Ms Haines responded with the statement below. No alterations were made to this fact check and it does not change our verdict.

    Sources

    © 2022 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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