JIM COOMBS. Is “Parliamentary Reform” needed?

Nov 24, 2017

When we contemplate the hopelessness of our national (and state) politics now, we are tempted, like John Menadue, to think that tinkering with the machine will turn a clapped out jalopy into a Roller. It is more likely the quality of the driver that is the problem.

Topically, one only needs to consider today’s arrest of sometime Auburn Deputy Mayor Mehajer, for being involved, in his no doubt state-of-the-art motor, in an “accident”, this very day. His machine was, as Private Eye used to mock commentator John Cole, “hondootedly” of the best design and technology. Problem with driver. And so it is with the machinery of government. Aging sentimentalists, like your opinionated correspondent, hark back to the days of Chifley, advised by the “seven dwarfs”, true professional career public servants, able to offer expert, independent advice, without the current, craven, fear of the axe. Today, such independent expertise is quickly silenced. So that’s the first point: there should be a career tenured public service which encourages and develops the capacity to give the best advice, not just what the politicians want to hear. You don’t have to look further than the Immigration Department to see the problem in Spades. And all that is in fact about the machinery, albeit not the parliamentary machinery. Although the user, like the purchasers of useless gas-guzzling SUVs, instead of something cheaper and more practical.

But it does take us to the weakness in our polity, that expert advice is ignored, worse, derided, by our elected representatives. Remember dear old Nick Minchin, who could blandly say that the climate scientists of the CSIRO, and the world community of scientists only had “an opinion”, and that any legislator of no qualification was entitled to reject their informed opinion. What a waste of space he was. Worse still, if an official took a view not consistent with the “neoliberal” economic ideology (which no one can justify), they were removed, at least, from giving their educated advice. Remember when calling people “Yes-men” was a term of derision ? No so now, they are celebrated as “policy-oriented”.

And I have yet to get to the “drivers”. No doubt the NSW Parliament with its “bear-pit” mentality was the harbinger of things to come. Parliamentary debate plunged to the depths of mindless point-scoring, not to mention personal abuse. The substance of debate receded, the heat of nastiness advanced. As a former competition debater, I can only say that you were more likely to win audience support if you had something worthwhile to say on the matter at issue. But they don’t, more interested in discomforting their opponents than winning the battle of ideas. So that is one of the present problems, parliamentary point-scoring, often of a puerile kind, is replacing serious debate. Better parliamentarians, focused on the issues, led by people who care about serious matters (climate change, serious renewable energy policy, a humanitarian refugee policy, an inclusive first peoples attitude) would make all the difference. One looks back on Liberal Billy Wentworth, a toff, who cared deeply about the aboriginal mistreatment. There ought to be more, above the bullying of the shock jocks and the increasingly hysterical and racist Murdoch press.

The next thing the ‘drivers’ have to be is, honest. To say, as both major parties’ people do that “turning back the boats” stops people dying at sea is disingenuous, or a frank lie, The boats are turned back for the people on board to perish on someone else’s watch, i.e, the much less wealthy Indonesians or Malaysians. How wonderful, that we didn’t let them die in our waters. And we spend more than a billion dollars to keep them out and to persecute the few who slipped through. Makes you proud to be Australian, eh ? Then of course our entry into the war in Iraq (and consequently Syria) on the basis of what was, even at the time widely regarded as a lie, the Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Which brings us to the true bastion of sanity: a sense of proportion. Well, of course, the refugee disgrace is typical: spend heaps of money to prevent maybe 20,000 odd refugees safe haven here, when Germany has taken a million or so, and poverty stricken Bangladesh copes with over 600,000 from Myanmar. Absorbing 20,000 would be miniscule compared to the stop-the-boats billions spent to breach our Refugee Convention obligations and our clear moral duty. Then of course there is the huge expenditure on defence hardware, most of which will never be used, or become outdated by the time they arrive in 10-20 years. Sending our troops to Syria to keep the Americans company, when we and they do not know or say who it is we are fighting for: at the moment it looks like Bashir al Assad, who we previously excoriated as a villainous dictator. We assist the Kurds in the field only to unceremoniously dump them at the behest of the minority Shia government of Iraq. Sense of proportion ?

So I answer the question this way, it is not so much the machinery of government that needs reform as much as the operators of the machine. People with vision , honesty, reason, sanity and a sense of proportion.

Jim Coombs is an almost retired magistrate and economist


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