What do Oppositions do?

Ever wondered what Oppositions actually do? Well you’ve come to the right place.

Oppositions have several roles.

If you look up the House of Representatives Practice (go on, do it) , you’ll see several neatly listed:

  • • unmaking the Government— that is, become the government;
  •  scrutiny, criticism and suggestions to improve legislation;
  •  examine expenditure and public accounts;
  •  seek information about government policy (think Question Time);
  •  surveillance, appraisal and criticism of government administration;
  •  ventilating grievances;
  •  petitioning; and
  • examine delegated legislation.

You’ll note that several of these roles really belong to what we call the official opposition, ‘her Majesty’s loyal opposition’ or ‘the alternative government’. This is the largest party and the one most likely to form a government rather than smaller parties also in opposition.

‘The official Opposition’ has a few privileges and responsibilities. For example, a privilege would be the extra resources opposition leaders and shadow ministers receive to help them advocate. A responsibility would be the obligation to give a reply to the budget. However, the opposition’s formal responsibilities are few. Much of what the opposition does is driven by convention built up over time.

Thus, the work (very loosely defined) that oppositions do is:

  • Political tactical work – strategizing and planning media and parliamentary tactics. Often this work is not visible, except of course, in its final execution. However, in the last few years of the Rudd/Gillard governments there was a trend for political tactics to be telegraphed in newspapers. Much this work is aimed at trying to ‘unmake government’ and occupies a lot of parties time.
  •  Legislative/ committee work – these are the formal information gathering and scrutiny roles. This is a large part of what voters would call the ‘real’ work of parliament and is often considered worthy but unglamorous. Though, we should not pretend that it is always pure. Regularly, legislative and committee work is pushed through a partisan filter, and often geared towards parties broader political goals. Think of the way that parties try to use senate estimates: their aims are to serve both the public interest and to embarrass the government.
  • Communication and advocacy work – arguing for ideas and telling people about the Opposition’s specific ideas or policies. On the surface this sounds overwhelmingly positive, but, as it is the opposition, the ideas advocated are often used to frame the government negatively and the opposition positively. However, the opposition plays and  important role when it advocates for  marginal ideas or ideas that government doesn’t want to talk about.
  • Constituent work  – representing your local community, following up problems with the relevant minister. This work is largely invisible at a national scale but can make a  real difference to people in the community.
  • Policy work – which is largely implied in the idea of ‘unmaking government’ an being an ‘alternative government’. Policy work is often a question of emphasis or even style for political parties in opposition. How much policy work to undertake, and what to release to the public, is a judgement call about what a party considers its strengths or weaknesses. It’s also another way of presenting or framing both itself and its opponents. As a quick example, think of the contrast between Whitlam and  ‘the platform’ at one end, and Tony Abbott and a return ‘adult government’ and three word slogans at the other.

The bottom line is: these roles are regularly blended. Is committee work really just about scrutinising government or does it help the opposition unmake government? How much time should oppositions invest in developing their political tactics compared with developing policy? Which combination will actually help them win power?

Should oppositions blur these lines? What should oppositions do when exercising their role? These are difficult questions and one that we’ll try to tackle next time.


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