As federal politicians jet into Canberra for Parliament’s first sitting day of 2014 today, they can rest assured they won’t be back very often. Australia’s parliaments are lazy, scheduled to sit on average for fewer than 50 days this year. And an academic has warned that makes it much easier for governments to hide from scrutiny and cramp public debate.

Crikey has tallied up how many days Australia’s lower houses are scheduled to sit — i.e. formally meet in their parliaments to consider legislation and debate issues — in 2014. While the UK House of Commons will sit 164 days and Canada’s lower house 130, Australia’s federal House of Representatives will sit for just 72 days.

That might not sound like much, but it’s better than South Australia‘s lower house. Australia’s laziest Parliament is on a holiday of four to five months. It last sat on November 28, has no sitting days scheduled for this year, and is expected to sit again in May. The gap is nominally because the state election is March 15, but there’s no reason Parliament couldn’t have sat this year. Governments decide how many days they will sit each year — and the answer seems to be “not many, thanks”.

Queensland not only fails to have an upper house or a viable opposition, it fails to meet often — just 40 days. Victoria is on the low side at 42 days.

New South Wales and Tasmania fare better, while Western Australia is the standout state with 66 sitting days scheduled.

While there are plenty of parliaments around the world that sit Monday to Friday, our state politicians feel that Tuesday to Thursday is enough (the feds sometimes sit on Monday too).

Interestingly, the federal total of 72 days is historically high — the most sitting days since 2003. The long-term average is 67 days (there are usually fewer sitting days in election years, like 2013). The reason is that Prime Minister Tony Abbott has scheduled an extra sitting week for the lower house in July, when MPs usually set off on taxpayer-funded study tours. It’s likely the move is aimed at giving Parliament time to repeal the carbon tax under the new Senate from July 1.

Here are our results, for lower houses only, for 2014. The column on the right shows budget estimates, which are not technically sitting days. Budget estimates are where MPs form committees to grill the government on its spending and policies. We’ve included the cases where lower-house MPs drive the process (sometimes it’s upper house MPs only) …

Australia (federal) 72 0
Western Australia 66 Possible days for budget estimates
Tasmania 53 7 for budget estimates
New South Wales 52 6 possible extra sitting days
Victoria 42 0
Queensland 40 7 for budget estimates
Australian Capital Territory 39 11 for budget estimates
Northern Territory 34 6 for budget estimates
South Australia 0 0

And here are the results as compared with some overseas jurisdictions. Note the US House of Representatives figure is for 2013, as this year’s schedule is difficult to find …

Number of sitting days scheduled for lower houses of Parliament (2014)

Graph showing parliamentary sitting days in Australia and overseas

Professor Clem Macintyre from the University of Adelaide’s School of History and Politics reckons it’s concerning Australian parliaments don’t sit often by international standards. “I think it’s an evident trend in Australia, and I don’t think it’s a good one for the robustness of our democratic institutions,” he told Crikey.

“Parliament enables legislation to be passed, but it’s also a forum in which the opposition is expected to keep the government under scrutiny … the fewer sitting days that we have makes it harder for the opposition to play that role. The public process of testing ideas, of enabling the opposition to challenge the government [in Parliament], is an important part of the political process.”

Macintyre says the process of government is increasingly conducted by the executive away from Parliament, with Parliament downgraded to a forum for passing legislation. There is less and less expectation that governments will expose themselves to scrutiny in the adversarial environment of the chamber, which feeds public disillusion with the political process, he says.

Macintyre describes SA’s current parliamentary hiatus as “a huge gap”.

Some might assume the low number of sitting days in Australia means politicians are lazy or overpaid, but many work hard away from Parliament — taking part in committees and enquiries; meeting businesspeople, activists and constituents and lobbying on their behalf; getting across pet policy areas; writing submissions, speeches and opinion pieces; keeping tabs on media coverage; liaising with state and federal colleagues; standing at stalls in shopping centres; attending local events; etc. Some MPs are working before 6.30am, keep it up until night-time and work a fair bit on weekends. They are tethered to the Blackberry and have little time to spend with family.

But other MPs breeze into the office at 11am — if at all — and let their staff do the work.

Peter Fray

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