How ministers influence legislation


Some of the ministers in the current Federal government

In Westminster systems of government, a minister is a Member of Parliament responsible for managing and overseeing an important area, such as health, education, transport, defence or water. These areas are known as portfolios and they are usually allocated to MPs by the prime minister or premier. Occasionally they may reallocate ministerial portfolios in a reshuffle, allowing him/her to replace underperforming ministers, retire long-serving ministers and promote new MPs. Ministers can belong to either House of Parliament, though most come from the lower house where the government is formed. Ministers are often high profile, frequently appearing in the media or in public to announce or discuss matters related to their portfolio. They may also attract criticism for errors, incompetence or scandals within their portfolio; occasionally ministers are forced to resign because of this, an example of responsible government in action. Most ministers also participate in cabinet meetings and decisions (some junior ministers are not involved).

Ministers are influential and important figures when it comes to law-making. They are responsible for overseeing legislation, regulations and the operation of organisations involved in their portfolio, such as government departments and statutory authorities. Although most important law reforms are discussed and approved at cabinet level, the minister is ultimately responsible for overseeing new legislation in his or her portfolio area. The minister and his/her office are heavily involved in research, consultation and drafting of new bills. The minister may communicate extensively with law reform bodies, parliamentary committees experts, pressure groups, lobbyists and other consultants. Ministers may also be involved in the drafting of bills, working closely with parliamentary counsel. When government bills are introduced into the parliament, it is almost always the relevant minister who does this. Ministers deliver the Second Reading speech to the house, explaining the purpose of the bill and information about its content. Ministers may also be called to account if there are criticisms of new legislation. In 2010 Peter Garrett, Federal Minister for the Environment, sustained strong criticism over the government’s insulation subsidy scheme, following the deaths of four workers.

As part of their portfolio, most ministers are in charge of government departments (sometimes called the ‘bureaucracy’ or ‘public service’). These large organisations are responsible for implementing government policies and legislation. For example, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, headed by Minister Julia Gillard, is responsible for carrying out the Federal government’s roll-out of laptop computers to all Australian schools. Government departments have the capacity to make law themselves (see Subordinate authorities) – but they are also a source of information, expertise and recommendations for the relevant minister. Since these departments understand how changes to legislation may work in practice, they are an important source of advice for ministers.

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