JOHN MENADUE Parliamentary reform and democratic renewal.

Most Australians have little trust in our parliament and in our members of parliament. Parliament has not responded to changes in community attitudes and aspirations. With the end of the two-party dominance it is inevitable that the parliament will be permanently in gridlock with no government controlling the Senate.

We need an independent enquiry to consider parliamentary reform and ways to breath life again into our democratic institutions. That reform would be good politics as well as good policy for the leader who would recognize the problem, listen and embrace the need for change.  

Politics is about the distribution of power in our community. Parliament is critical in that process. Conservatives are less concerned about a poorly performing parliament because they prefer the status quo. Reformers need a strong and respected parliament to change power structures.

Our parliament is stuck in a two-party mold. Yet the voters keep telling us that we really have a multi-party system with ‘minor’ parties regularly polling 25% or more of the vote. And these minor parties are increasing their influence and attractiveness in the electorate.

As the late Ian Marsh set out in this blog on September 9, 2016,

Until the major parties come to see that the forms, procedures and incentives of the two party world are no longer fit for purpose, the country as a whole will pay the cost.

On the other hand, the political leader who first recognises that the political landscape has shifted will have an assured historic place. Alfred Deakin is rightly celebrated as one of our greatest leaders not only because he was a gifted policy innovator but also because he saw that social change required new rules for the political game.

If we return to the pre-two party period, we find that the parliamentary committee system played a key role in mediating policy action. This was the primary setting where proposals and remedies were first aired. This was where ad hoc cross-party deals were explored. This took place before the executive decided what to do. The late Liberal Senator David Hamer proposed a roughly similar role for the modern Senate. In recent years, the House of Commons committee system has gained substantially in stature and authority. Is it time now for a parliamentary inquiry into how this might work in Australia?

The two-party system has passed its use by date. Until we get a leader with sufficient wisdom and guile to exploit this fact, gridlock seems assured.

In our gridlocked two-party system, the Cabinet and party machines dominate parliament regardless of community attitudes and the role of minor parties. Cabinet fails to get key legislation passed in the Senate. Question time is brutal and highly partisan. It is embarrassing for all of us.

We need a professional and independent review of our parliament and the democratic renewal that must be part of that reform.

Without in any orders of priority, what should be the agenda for such an enquiry?

  1. Several states have introduced four-year parliamentary terms. A four-year term for the federal parliament would help discourage excessive and almost continual electioneering.
  2. An independent speaker, more like the speaker of the House of Commons in the UK, would encourage a more inclusive and less adversarial parliament.
  3. The Parliamentary Budget Office was established in 2011. It provides independent and non-partisan analysis of the budget cycle. It was a good start. But its work is restricted to budgets. The PBO should be expanded to include the provision of advice to members of parliament in other areas such as health, defence and foreign affairs. Too often the advice of competent people in departments is restricted by the political control of ministers. The research resources of the Parliamentary Library should also be enhanced. I recall vividly that the development of Gough Whitlam’s policy program was substantially enabled by the support he received from the Parliamentary Library.
  4. We desperately need an improved parliamentary committee system . In limited ways, the Senate has shown that an expanded committee role is possible and essential. Ian Marsh in this blog has pointed out how Senate committees could be used to tease out key and contentious issues and hopefully find common ground. The conclusions of such Senate committee consideration could then be presented for consideration by the House of Representatives. In short, the Senate would sort out the different issues and by the time the legislation came to the House of Representatives, there would have been developed a community support and broad agreement. The role of Senate committees would also be greatly enhanced by including in their membership persons with professional skills and ability who are not members of parliament. To emphasise the changed role of the Senate, the next government could decide not to appoint ministers from the Senate.
  5. We need to acknowledge that we have in effect a multi-party system but we refuse to admit it. We could look much more closely at what our Kiwi cousins have done. As Ian Marsh has commented in this blog:
    New Zealand has been operating a very successful multi-party system since 1996. Indeed, since this time, both Helen Clark (Labour) and John Key (National) have run successful minority governments. They have deliberately turned away from majority coalition. Instead, they work with confidence and supply agreements. They then assemble majority coalitions in the parliament depending on the issue at hand.  Working to this formula, New Zealand has raised its GST, tackled tax avoidance, withdrawn unseemly tax rorts and introduced social reform. But New Zealand is unicameral. So only in an indirect sense does it present a model for Australia….
    The conventions that now govern parliamentary practice tacitly assume that the electorate more or less divides in two. The rules of the game sustain the illusion that the winner has sufficient electoral authority to alone determine the legislative agenda. This is out of place in a multi-party context.
  1. Our parliamentary and cabinet system is being corrupted by the power of rent-seekers and lobbyists who extract concessions from government regardless of the public interest and invariable in ways unknown to the public. We need a rigorous and transparent system for regulating lobbyists about the way they are able to extract a whole range of concessions from governments. We need to know what they are doing. Legislation also needs to be introduced to prohibit ministers and senior public servants taking lobbying positions soon after retirement. I have written extensively in this blog about this major corruption of public life in Australia.
  2. We need to control election funding. Amongst developed countries we have one of the most lax political donation systems. Foreign donations should be banned. We need to limit funding by private groups and institutions including trade unions. Any significant shortfall of party funding should be made up with public funding.
  3. Many of us are frustrated that our Cabinet and particularly the Prime Minister can commit Australia to war, usually to fight in distant countries in association with a foreign protector. Committing the Australian Defence Forces to war should require a resolution passed by both Houses of Parliament. If the government cannot secure support from both Houses of Parliament there are likely to be very good reasons why we should not be committed in the first place, as was the case in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria.
  4. Some states have established anti-corruption commissions with varying powers and competence. We need a strong federal Independent Commission Against Corruption to weed out any taint of corruption.

A broad agenda of parliamentary reform and democratic renewal is imperative. A major party that is credible on parliamentary reform will reap a large electoral dividend. The public is dissatisfied and disillusioned about the national parliament. The best way for Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten to prove their bona fides as parliamentarians is to demonstrate by actions how they value the parliament and its proper use.

If only our politicians would seriously endeavour to find common ground by addressing the issues I have outlined above.

Leadership by Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten in these areas is the best way to restore confidence in parliament and our political life.

Don’t just talk about it – do it!

In the late 1890s and the first decade of the 20th Century, Australia was an innovator in building political institutions and practices – the secret ballot, votes for women, a living wage and federation itself. We were world innovators. But we are laggards today. New Zealand in particular is showing us how the parliamentary and political system can be improved.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to JOHN MENADUE Parliamentary reform and democratic renewal.

  1. Avatar David Maxwell Gray says:

    Whether any given democracy is a good one can be assessed by its capacity for, and performance of, orderly, measured progressive change, but fundamental change. By this measure, Australia has lost its mojo. It once was a leading exemplar of real democracy as we know it (e.g. universal franchise, women’s’ vote).

    At its worst, our politics is a brutal clash of rent-seeking donors, with paid lobbyists crowding out genuine community views. Politics also lost sight of some always limited but still real aspects of Australian culture, such as respect for the rights of workers, and a desire for an egalitarian or at least fair society.

    Perhaps it is well over time to start a strong movement for democratic change in our formal institutions.

    I suggest as part of this we need a standing Federal commission of constitutional reform, to have a say decade-long programme of proposals to update and reform the constitution. This would normalise for voters the process of desirable change and permit us to consider and vote for incremental moves in the right direction, including perhaps:

    a) a change in the system of voting which provides a more proportionate parliament representation of minority parties;
    b) new eligibility criteria for Federal politicians;
    c) recognition of a third tier of government, namely local government;
    d) at least a modest form of explicit human rights, rather than just the current implied rights;
    e) provisions making Federal/State agreements enforceable at least for several years (the current tearing up of such agreements costs the community large sums and is very inefficient);
    f) clarifying and documenting the constitutional legal meanings which have been read into the current constitution by the High Court, often with a degree of creative interpretive licence and political intent;
    g) proper alternatives for moving to a republic;
    h) recognition of the special place our indigenous people deserve, at least by a constitutional voice but also by other constitutional means. As a small minority, they will always otherwise be dis-empowered and other democratic devices such as coalitions with other minorities will never answer their needs.

    Many others could be suggested.

  2. Avatar eva cox says:

    We agree on the basic problem of detachment and distrust, and a very disillusioned electorate. I think most of the critical points made I’d endorse but I have a major additional concern that is not covered. There is no mention of the content, the issues that are being debated and presented, particularly by the major parties, not just here but in most democracies over the past decades. As I wrote in my piece on distrust, there is an increasing disconnect between governments and voters, as visibility of public contributions are reduced. Increasing transparency won’t fix content, so we need to address the perception that voters’ needs are not being heard or met. The desperate push today for tax cuts by the PM, as seen to be buying votes, rather than being seen to be governing won’t fix the problems. We need to return to being citizens, not customers, to build up content relevance , not just better scrutiny of bad policy options.

  3. John,

    I find the ideas outlined here very tame and can’t see how they’d underpin ‘renewal’. I have argued that the basic feature of our system that generates the kind of empty polarisation we see is electioneering in the context of our toxic media. Yes it’s true, as it always has been, that sufficiently talented and courageous political leaders can make a substantial difference. But should we tolerate a system where this is the precondition for progress to be made, and where, it seems this precondition goes increasingly unmet?

    I’ve argued that we could supplement our electoral system with non-competitive forms of democratic representation. The Accord was ‘non-competitive’ in the sense that representatives of various sectors were simply selected by the Government and admitted to negotiations. They didn’t have to beat anyone else to get there. Once there, their incentives were to cooperate with others in solving social and economic problems and then divide up the rent.

    Selection by lot is similarly non-competitive and tasks a group of people with solving a problem, something that the experience with citizens’ juries around the world suggest they do with great aplomb. I’ve had a lot of interest in what I’m saying but you’ve indicated to me that you’re not interested in giving a platform to such arguments here. Those who are interested can check them out here and here.

  4. Avatar George Cloughley says:

    All good points John. Unfortunately the current political system greatly benefits the big two parties and the status quo suits them just fine. As an example, at the 2016 election the LNC only won around 35% of the vote but was allocated around 51% of the seats in the House of Reps. The extra 16% was legally “appropriated” from the small parties and independents, who polled nearly a quarter of the votes, but were allocated only a handful of seats. The big two parties will have to be dragged kicking and screaming towards political reform and that will only be when enough people stop voting for them and they are in a minority government.

  5. Avatar Rodney Edwin Lever says:

    Australia has had some memorable Speakers who appeared to understand independence and who could maintain order and fairness. One can recall Archie Cameron, the last to wear a wig in the chair, and always managed to add dignity to the Parliament. Forget the wig if you like, but some modern Speakers (not all) have been carried away by their self-importance.

  6. Australia’s Senators are elected in a preferential system which can result in someone with almost no support being elected, as is happening at the moment with Senator Anning. This happens because the excess votes of a candidate (usually from a major party), who has met the quota, are passed down the line.
    Would it not be more sensible to have an ‘exhaustive preferential’ system, where the candidate with the least votes is knocked off, with his/her supporters’ second preferences receiving their votes? At each round, the candidate with the least votes is knocked off, the votes passing up the line until someone achieves the quota.

  7. Avatar Kim Wingerei says:

    All great points that continue to be ignored by short-sighted party-leaders who are beholden firstly to their party-room and its factions, secondly to their donors, and a very distant third to their constituents. I would also like to point out a recent book by Richard Walsh – Rebooting Democracy. I have written a review of his book that you may find of interest to publish here, but cannot find the ‘style guide’ referred to for your email address?

Comments are closed.