JOHN MENADUE Parliamentary reform and democratic renewal.

Nov 20, 2017

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.

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