Lawmaking by Parliamentary Term

Data as at 12 December 2022.

The scale and diversity of modern lawmaking means that Parliamentarians today confront a completely different legal landscape to their predecessors. Even as the rate of Parliamentary lawmaking has increased, the challenge facing a member of Parliament of reviewing Executive lawmaking has become daunting. This page explores the scale and diversity of lawmaking faced by each Parliament over the past 120 years, in the form of both Acts and delegated legislation.

Legislating by Parliament

Parliamentarians today face a volume and speed of lawmaking orders of magnitudes greater than the MPs and Senators who went before them. The number of Acts passed during each Parliamentary term over the past 120 years has grown rapidly, from just over 110 in the the unusually busy (for its time) fourth Parliament to around 400 Acts per Parliament over the past twenty years. Figure 1 shows the number of Acts passed per Parliamentary term.

Figure 1: Number of Acts passed per Parliamentary term

MPs and Senators of the first three Australian Parliaments could have read all the Acts passed by Parliament during their term in around 30 to 40 hours, or five to six days of reading across a three-year term. This does not include the Bills that they needed to consider but which did not pass into law. A member of 46th Parliament starting in 2019 needed to spend at least 23 eight-hour days of reading only Bills that became Acts, and recent Parliamentarians have also needed to engage with between 150 and 200 unsuccessful government and private members’ Bills each term.

Figure 2 shows the total number of words passed in Acts per Parliamentary term, excluding tables of contents and other front matter.

Figure 2: Words of Acts passed per Parliamentary term

There can be limited time to engage with Bills between their introduction to the Parliament and their eventual passage. As Figure 3 shows, there are an increasing number of Acts that see fewer than five days between their introduction and passage by Parliament.

Figure 3: Number of Acts with fewer than five days between introduction and passage

The diversity of subject matter facing Parliamentarians each term has grown steadily, coming to cover vast swathes of Australian social and economic life. Figure 4 provides a heatmap of the different subject matter covered by Acts passed in each term of Parliament since 1901. Many areas of law that previously saw little if any federal legislation today see vast volumes, including in relation to health, corporations and financial services, and workplace relations and human rights. The heatmap is based on the number of words appearing in each Act.

Figure 4: Subject matter of each Parliament’s Acts

The volume of legislation has grown or remained elevated under many governments, as Figure 5 shows. It is important to recognise that the volume of legislation provides a crude measure of the scale and importance of legislating under any single government. For example, the just over one million words passed by the 29th Parliament included the Trade Practices Act 1974, the Family Law Act 1975, the Foreign Takeovers Act 1975, the Health Insurance Act 1973, and the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. However, as the above heatmap shows, governments today legislate on a far more diverse range of matters than their predecessors.

Figure 5: Words in Acts of Parliament by party in government

Legislating by the Parliament has increasingly come to focus on amending existing Acts rather than passing new principal Acts. As Figure 6 shows, most words contained in Acts passed in recent Parliaments have amended existing laws. The focus on amending existing law is understandable: the total body of in force Acts comes in at 21,848,187 words. Ensuring the quality of the statute book is a constant challenge for Parliament.

Figure 6: Words of Acts passed per Parliamentary term (Principal v Amending)

Acts and delegated legisaltion per Parliamentary term

While Acts are passed by the Parliament, Parliamentarians also have a role in scrutinising the delegated legislation produced by the Executive Government under Acts. As Figure 7 shows, scrutinising only regulations made by the Executive has come to present a significant challenge given their volume.

Figure 7: Pages of Acts and Regulations per Parliamentary term

But modern lawmaking and the statute book includes far more than Acts and regulations. Most legislation takes the form of delegated legislation other than regulations, and is made by dozens of separate Executive Government decision-makers, from regulators to universities, and hundreds of departmental staff.

A diligent Parliamentarian sitting in the 46th Parliament who wanted to review the more than 110,000 pages of primary and delegated legislation made during the Parliamentary term would have had to set aside hundreds of days for reading. The Parliamentarian would also face the fact that they have only a small role in creating the modern statute book: Acts accounted for fewer than 15% of pages of legislation made during the term of the 46th Parliament.

Figure 8: Pages of Acts and Regulations per Parliamentary term

Government Bills

The Bills that make it to the statute book in the form of Acts represent the majority of Government Bills introduced during any Parliamentary term. But, as Figure 9 illustrates, a significant minority of Government Bills are never passed into law in the same term of Parliament in which they are introduced. Some are reintroduced in the next Parliament, but a change in the party in Government can see many Bills simply abandoned.

Figure 9: Government Bills since the 39th Parliament

Figure 10 shows the proportion of Government Bills that became law in the same Parliament in which they were introduced, and the proportion that failed to pass.

Figure 10: Proportion of successful Government Bills since the 39th Parliament

Figure 11 clearly highlights the significance of the House of Representatives as the originating chamber for the vast majority of Government Bills. This partly reflects the requirements of the Australian Constitution, s 53 of which provides that ‘laws appropriating revenue or moneys, or imposing taxation, shall not originate in the Senate’. However, it may also reflect the fact that Governments have rarely had a majority in the Senate.

Figure 11: Government Bills by originating Chamber of Parliament

Private Members’ Bills

Successful Private Members’ Bills are extremely rare. Between the 39th Parliament (10 November 1998) and 46th Parliament (dissolved 11 April 2022), there have been just 14 successful Private Members’ Bills. These are listed below:

  • Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017
  • Parliamentary Service Amendment Bill 2014
  • Parliamentary Service Amendment Bill 2013
  • Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012
  • Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011
  • Auditor-General Amendment Bill 2011
  • Evidence Amendment (Journalists’ Privilege) Bill 2011
  • Territories Self-Government Legislation Amendment (Disallowance and Amendment of Laws) Bill 2011
  • Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006
  • Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2005
  • Parliamentary Service Amendment Bill 2005
  • Parliamentary Service Amendment Bill 2001
  • Adelaide Airport Curfew Bill 2000
  • Parliamentary Service Bill 1999

Table 1 provides a summary of how many Private Members’ Bills were introduced each term and how many were successful.

Table 1: Private Members’ Bills since the 39th Parliament

Parliament Private Members’ Bills Successful Private Members’ Bills
39th 50 3
40th 49 3
41st 74 3
42nd 128 0
43rd 180 4
44th 85 1
45th 182 1
46th 165 0