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New Parliament Heralds Chance For Reform

by Dr Simon Longstaff
01 December 2007
One of the best things about the election of a new parliament is that it provides an opportunity to revitalise the heart of our democratic institutions, writes Simon Longstaff.

Importantly, the chance to breathe new life into an old institution remains alive even when a sizeable chunk of those elected are ‘old hands’ returning to their seats in the House of Representatives and Senate. No matter what the disappointments of the past, it is possible for members of a new parliament to set those aside and make a new beginning – if only they have the courage and commitment to do so.

A peaceful transfer of power, by the mechanism of an election, is a priceless thing. But it does not, of itself, guarantee the quality of our democracy.

There are six reforms that I would encourage our elected representatives to pursue.

First, I would loosen the bonds of party discipline as enforced by the major parties. Yes, a prudent measure of party discipline is important – but so is the need to preserve the vitality of debate within the parliamentary chambers. The iron control of the major parties in Australia has worked to undermine the relevance of our parliaments. Why bother with parliament when the really important debates (and decisions) are made behind closed doors? There are far too many occasions when parliamentary debate is a ‘sham’, and the vote a mere formality – the ultimate ‘rubber stamp’ for an executive that dominates both the party room and by extension, the parliament. The House of Commons and the US Congress operate with considerably greater freedom for their members to vote as they think best – and the sky has not fallen in!

Second, I would encourage the development of a prestigious career path for talented parliamentarians who do not want to be members of the Executive. At present, the principal opportunities for advancement are in the gift of a prime minister who can reward or punish using access to the ministry as an index of his or her favour. No wonder ambitious politicians compromise their own position and comply with the expectations of those who control access to the executive offices. But what if there was another way to secure recognition in the parliament? What if we provided some of the ‘perks of office’ not only to the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate but also to those chairing important parliamentary committees? Would this encourage really talented people to invest more of themselves in the parliament rather than the government?

Third, it is time to insist upon the active application of the principle of ministerial responsibility. Our whole system of representative democracy depends on the executive being accountable to the parliament. Whenever ministers seek to escape responsibility by using ‘weasel words’, by equivocating, by claiming ignorance or by blaming others then they undermine the core convention of our constitution. It is obviously true that ministers cannot know the details of every decision made in their department. It is obviously unjust that ministers be held responsible for things done in their departments without their knowledge or agreement. Yet, for all this, it is essential that the parliament insist on the convention that each decision was the minister’s own. Serving as a minister is a matter of choice – no person is compelled to take up the burden associated with this particular form of public service. Those who do so make a choice similar to those who volunteer to serve in the armed services. Except in the latter case, the volunteer takes on unlimited liability – possibly losing their life (and not just their job) in circumstances that are unjust and unfair. The fact that we impose an almost impossible burden on Ministers is troubling. That we should do so is essential.

Fourth, there is a need to make ministerial advisers accountable. I understand that principal advisers are often more powerful than not-so-permanent heads of the public service. Some advisers seem quite content to provide ‘plausible deniability’ (and other services) knowing that they can do most things without being accountable to anyone other than the minister. I would recommend that parliament have a close look at the whole structure with an eye to reform.

Fifth – ask real questions in the parliament (outlaw the ‘Dorothy Dixer’). Sixth – do not abuse parliamentary privilege; for example, by lying and defaming under cover of legal immunity.

A peaceful transfer of power, by the mechanism of an election, is a priceless thing. But it does not, of itself, guarantee the quality of our democracy. This is a harder task – one that is, to a significant degree, entrusted to our Members of Parliament.

Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre.