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Revitalising Australian parliamentary democracy.



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Perspective

 

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Dr John Langmore, professorial fellow, Department of Political Science, University of Melbourne

 

Revitalising Australian parliamentary democracy

There's a widespread sense of powerlessness about national affairs. Disengagement has characterised Australian politics until recently.

Disengagement isn't an accident, for during the last decade public discussion has been discouraged. Centralism has eroded the openness and vitality of Australian political processes. The Prime Minister has been dominant and Parliament has had little independence. Senate committees have been decimated; incumbent members entrenched; and many community organisations have been bullied into silence.

However, more than the style of the current government is involved. The Australian parliament has always been less influential than legislatures in other democratic countries. For example, neither our House nor Senate can make a dollar of difference to the budget. Once the Prime Minister and cabinet are elected they have autocratic control until the next election - unless they don't control the Senate. If they don't, the Senate can block passage of the budget but senators still cannot amend the budget without the government's agreement because any amendments also have to be passed by the House.

Many politicians in both major party groupings believe that votes are determined by self-interest alone and so they appeal only to local, narrow and selfish concerns. But in fact we are all a mixture of self-interest and altruism. Voters typically want MPs to not only represent their interests but also to lead.

For the last quarter century neither major party grouping has seriously attempted to appeal to voters' altruism. Any political party would increase its attractiveness when there is a moral dimension to its policies. Commitment social justices and improved community appeal more to many voters' that further tax cuts.

Strengthening the effectiveness of parliament is vital to renewing the legitimacy of political processes, for parliament is the one institution with the potential authority to renew the link between the community and government. Many aspects of parliament need reform.

For example, despite the growth in the proportion of female members, the continuing macho style of Question Time discredits the institution. Abuse, obstruction, contrivance, hyperbole and irrelevance characterise question time. The search for, or provision of, information is only rarely the purpose of the questioner or of the minister answering. Many listeners are repelled by the abusiveness.

Change in the culture of Australian parliamentary debate depends on leadership, incentives and the choices of individual members. But if ministers won the warmest praise from the media and voters for the intelligence, relevance and succinctness of their answers the quality would certainly improve.

Amendment of the Caucus solidarity rule by the Labor Party would improve the representational capacity of the parliament and the quality of political debate. At present Labor members can be expelled from the Party for voting against a Caucus decision. Party discipline is certainly important but making a fetish of Caucus solidarity is a false god. Some loosening of party solidarity could make parliament a more genuinely vigorous forum, particularly if the other parties also increase their flexibility.

Parliamentary committees provide a channel between the public and policy makers. They also enable MPs and senators to rigorously inquire into high priority issues. The first comprehensive committee system was only established in the House of Representatives in 1987, twenty years ago. Further reforms are required because both governments and the public service have many ways of resisting committee recommendations.

Establishment of a bipartisan Parliamentary Commission with responsibility for budgeting and staffing for parliament would enable parliament to be more independent of government control. It should have responsibility for management of all aspects of parliament and its committees, so that a government could not immobilise work of the houses through funding and staffing cuts.

In our democracy, even with its inadequacies, powerlessness is a personal choice. Everyone has some capacity to influence others. Everyone can visit their member, write to the paper, speak on talk-back radio and influence their community group, church, business or union. Those really concerned can join political parties. We can all contribute to a shared campaign for a more secure, fair, sustainable and vibrant Australia and a more just and peaceful world.

Guests

John Langmore  

Professorial Fellow 

Department of Political Science 

University of Melbourne

ALP Member for Fraser 

1984-1996