A Short History of a Long Statute Book

Data as at 12 Dec 2022

The Commonwealth statute book is now more than 120 years old. The first ink was spilled on its pages in 1901, with the passage in June of that year of the first Consolidated Revenue Act, followed shortly after by the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.

This page offers an initial outline of the story of our Commonwealth statue book, written in the pages of the Acts the Australian Parliament passes and the regulations and other legislative instruments the Executive Government makes. The page first presents data on the explosive growth of the statute book. The page then explores the subject-matter of our legislation, before concluding by examining the administering departments responsible for making Commonwealth law. Data from 1901 covers Acts and regulations but other legislative instruments are only included since 2010. Data from before 2010 is included in data sets on as made legislation.

This page is intended as a case study in using data sets from the DataHub. The page shows how the DataHub’s ‘big data’ approach allows people to quantitatively examine the more than 13,200 Acts made since 1901, along with over 87,500 legislative instruments. The page also seeks to prompt questions, such as ‘how have certain areas of lawmaking changed over time?’, ‘how have the makers of our laws changed over time?’, and ‘what does it mean that we are amending our laws more than ever?’. The page principally uses the As made Commonwealth legislation data set.

Using various combinations of several columns from this data set — ‘legPages’, ‘subject’, ‘administrator’, ‘forceStatus’, and ‘principalAmending’ — a rich picture of the Commonwealth statute book can be painted. This picture is one that raises more questions than it answers. To pose three further questions raised by this page, and also by the Statute Book Today page:

  • Why do certain subject-matters generate so much lawmaking?
  • Why do some Government departments make such voluminous use of delegated legislation?
  • Most fundamentally, why is the Commonwealth statute book growing and evolving so rapidly? Is it trends in our society and economy? Growing demands on the state? The Commonwealth Government taking over areas previously legislated by state governments? Changing approaches to law design or lawmaking? The ease with which electronic documents can be produced?

Growth in the Commonwealth Statute book

Repeals, amendments, and new Principal legislation mean that the Commonwealth statute book is constantly evolving. This section explores the growth of Acts and regulations since 1901, before drawing on more recent data to examine other types of legislative instruments beyond regulations.

Growth since 1901

The frequency and scale of annual edits to the Commonwealth statute book have grown significantly since 1901. As Figure 1 illustrates, the number of Acts and regulations passed each year accelerated quickly after Federation in 1901, before leveling off and declining into the 1920s and 1930s. Lawmaking, measured by the number of Acts and regulations made, began to accelerate again in the late-1950s and the 1960s, before declining again during and after the 1990s. The peak in the number of regulations occurred in 1942, as hundreds of National Security regulations were made under the National Security Act 1939 (for more information, see the DataHub’s page on Law, War, and Peace). The peak in the number of Acts came in 1992.

Some Acts and regulations will repeal existing legislation, perhaps to replace it or simply repeal it. This means that the Commonwealth statute book has not accumulated all the pages passed since 1901: the body of in force law is smaller than the total volume of all legislation passed since 1901.

Figure 1: Number of Acts and regulations (1901–2021)

However, focusing on the number of pages included in Acts and regulations highlights the increase in Commonwealth lawmaking that occurred in the 1970s and which has seen very high levels of lawmaking persist into the 21st Century. Figure 2 shows the total number of pages included in Acts and regulations made annually.

Figure 2: Pages of Acts and regulations (1901–2021)

The average length of Acts and regulations has varied significantly over time, as Figure 3 shows. After a peak in the early decades of the Australian Federation, followed by a plateau, the average length of Acts increased rapidly during and after the 1980s.

Figure 3: Average page length of Acts and regulations (1901–2021)

The trend in the growth of the length of Commonwealth legislation is also highlighted by Figure 4, which shows the pages of each Act and regulation since Federation. Whereas just two new Acts or regulations were longer than 400 pages before 1965, a total of 210 have been equal to or longer than 400 pages since, including the mammoth Corporations Act 2001 (1,866 pages) and the Customs (ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Rules of Origin) Amendment Regulation 2015 (No. 1) (1,921 pages).

Figure 4: Pages of each Act and Regulation (1901–2021)

The ALRC’s data makes it easy to also explore different types of legislation. For example, Figure 5 plots the length of each Appropriation Act since 1901. Highlighting the changing approaches to law design, Parliament has come to favour shorter Appropriation Acts, often involving multiple subject-matter-specific Acts, over larger omnibus measures. The Figure was created by displaying only Acts that contained certain words in their name (‘Appropriation’), a methodology that can be used to draw out trends in relation to certain legislative subject-matter.

Figure 5: Pages of each Appropriation Act (1901–2021)

Growth in the modern statute book

More recent data demonstrates the true scale of modern-lawmaking by the Australian Government. Figure 6 shows the making of Acts, regulations, and other legislative instruments since 2010. Legislative instruments other than regulations now dominate Commonwealth lawmaking by volume. These other legislative instruments are made by the Executive Government, such as by Ministers, regulators, or departmental staff.

Figure 6: Number of Acts and legislative instruments (2010–2021)

Again, focusing on the total pages comprising each type of legislation tells a different story to analysing the number of Acts or instruments made. Figure 7 shows the total number of pages introduced to the Commonwealth statute book through Acts, regulations, and other legislative instruments since 2010.

Figure 7: Pages of Acts and legislative instruments (2010–2021)

Principal and Amending legislation since 1901

How often does the Parliament and Executive Government make completely new legislation as opposed to amending existing law? Figure 8 suggests that an increasing number of Acts and regulations have been made to amend existing legislation, even as new principal legislation has also increased. As the Federal Register of Legislation explains,

principal legislation, as opposed to amending legislation, is the legislation that deals with a particular topic or area of the law. Whilst principal legislation may amend other legislation, its primary job is to set out new law rather than amend other laws.

Figure 8: Number of principal and amending Acts and regulations (1901–2021)

Examining the number of pages of amending and principal legislation tells a more complex story, as Figure 9 shows. For the first 60 years of the Commonwealth statute book, lawmakers were mainly concerned with producing principal legislation. Since the 1970s, amending legislation has become more common, even as the volume of principal legislation has also increased rapidly. Simple linear regression lines have been added to highlight the trends in principal and amending legislation.

Figure 9: Pages of princpal and amending Acts and regulations (1901–2021)

Subject-matter of Commonwealth Legislation

What is the Australian Government making all this legislation about? This first section takes the longer view of the subject-matter of Acts and regulations since 1901, before examining the subject-matter of all legislation since 2010.

Subject-matter since 1901

The most common topic, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been money. Tax and excise legislation account for 8% of all Acts and regulations made, while appropriations and grants legislation make up 6% of the total of 941,005 pages made since 1901. It is important to note that the ALRC classifies some legislation as having multiple subjects, so the total number of pages shown in Figure 10 is higher than the actual number of pages made since 1901. The Figure shows the total number of Act and regulation pages by the subject matters of the legislation.

Figure 10: Pages of Acts and regulations by subject (1901–2021)

The ALRC’s data also makes it possible to look at how legislative priorities change over time. Figure 11 shows three areas of legislative activity and the annual percentage of Act and regulation pages for which they accounted. Periods in which governments have prioritised these areas are obvious. Health sees a spike in relative importance in 1975, during which major reforms such as the Health Insurance Act 1975 received Royal Assent. The new Health Insurance Act 1975 resulted in a significant body of delegated legislation, and 1975 also saw significant amendments to Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme legislation. In relation to social security, 1991 saw passage of the more than 1,000 page Social Security Act 1991. Migration legislation has become a legislative priority in the 1990s, with the passage of the Migration Reform Act 1992, the making of the 743 page Migration (1993) Regulations, and their subsequent repeal and replacement in 1994 by the modern Migration Regulations.

Figure 11: Percentage of pages of Acts and regulations by selected subject (1901–2021)