John Menadue. Parliamentary reform and the new Speaker.

Aug 11, 2015

In my post of 12 May this year ‘Democratic renewal and our loss of trust in institutions’, I wrote about our loss of trust in so many institutions including our parliament and political parties. If Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten want to improve public debate and restore some faith in our public institutions the election of new speaker Tony Smith provides an opportunity to change course.

The most trusted of our institutions are all public institutions; the ABC, the High Court and the Reserve Bank. The least trusted are political parties and the expenses mess triggered by Bronwyn Bishop will add to that lack of trust.

Trade Unions and business groups rank about equally in trust but they are well down the list of trusted institutions. The Federal Parliament is trusted about as much as our media and not surprisingly with News Corp the least trusted of all of our media.

The abuse of public trust by Bronwyn Bishop and others must be addressed but there is an unfortunate and consistent clamour by the powerful to undermine parliament and governments. The powerful, the wealthy, large businesses and the media don’t want their powers checked. That is why they target the parliament and political parties for criticism. This is not really surprising as the parliament in particular and our general political processes are the best means to redress power in favour of the powerless.

Consider the furore over Bronwyn Bishop and the minimal attention to other rorts. Last week the media reported that the privileged and poorly performing sons of Rupert Murdoch would each get $US 27 million a year for four years in remuneration. There is little comment about the widespread and enormous tax avoidance by the powerful.

Politics is the means to rebalance power in favour of the poor and needy. That is why democratic renewal is so important.

The main concern I have about Bronwyn Bishop is her abuse of power and using her powers in the parliament in the interests of Tony Abbott and his government. She also had the unpleasant knack of looking down on those that she considered of less merit than herself. Unfortunately neither Tony Abbott nor Bronwyn Bishop has shown any real appreciation of the parliament and its proper role. How galling it was to hear from her on her resignation that she had done it ‘because of my love and respect for the institution of parliament and the Australian people’.

There are few signs that government leaders appreciate the damage that Bronwyn Bishop has done to the standing of the Parliament. Christopher Pyne said that Bronwyn Bishop ‘had been felled in the most unfair circumstances by politics today’. Tony Abbott added ‘Despite some admitted errors of judgement she has served this parliament, our country, her party, with dedication and distinction over 30 years. She has been a warrior for the causes she believed in.’ But clearly she was not a warrior in the interests and integrity of our parliament.

Hopefully the new speaker will provide an opportunity for parliamentary and democratic renewal. He has said that he will not attend party meetings. That is important but he needs to go much further. He should consider the practice of the House of Commons in the UK that speakers in future must be nominated at least by a minimum number of members of the Opposition. This ensures a less partisan speaker.

With the new speaker’s leadership, the parliament should take responsibility and in a quite transparent way for the control of members’ of parliament’s expenses and entitlements. These matters should be the responsibility of the Department of Parliament and not the Department of Finance.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on democratic renewal, I outlined other important ways to reform and improve the parliament.

To assist members of parliament to counter the power of the cabinet and the public service the last parliament established a Parliamentary Budget Office. It provides independent and nonpartisan analysis of the budget cycle. It was a good start. But its work is restricted to budgets. Similar offices should be established in such areas as health, defence and foreign affairs.

The research resources of the Parliamentary Library should also be enhanced. In the development of Gough Whitlam’s policy program the Parliamentary Library was a critical enabler. 

We need an improved parliamentary committee system where hopefully we can begin to see again the art of negation and compromise. The Senate has shown that improvements are possible. A good start in our next parliament would be an all-party committee to consider ways in which the performance of the parliament could be improved and the power of the executive contained. 

We need a broad agenda for parliamentary reform. The major party that is credible on parliamentary reform will reap a large electoral dividend. The best way for Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten to prove their bona fides as parliamentarians is to demonstrate by actions how they value the Parliament and use it as their forum and not television grabs, and talk back radio. What a pleasure it would be to see the parliament as a lively forum for debating policy and asking genuine questions to elicit information rather than a means to score political\l points. If only our politicians would seriously endeavour to find common ground by starting on such issues as senate electoral reform, political donations and ending the abuse of power by lobbyists. Leadership by Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten in these areas is the best way to restore confidence in parliament and politics. Don’t talk about it. Do it.

There is a lack of trust in most of our major institutions. With the help of Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten the new speaker does provide an opportunity for the reform of Parliament and the restoration of confidence in our political processes. Those processes are essential for good policy and governance in Australia and supporting the most vulnerable and powerless in our community.

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