Having created two weeks of instability, independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor have decided to install the Labor-Green coalition as our next government on the grounds - so they tell us - that they value stability. Why is stability such a virtue only after the votes have been auctioned?
For much of the previous two weeks they were pursuing honest costing of some of the parties’ promises. If honesty is such a virtue that governments should rise or fall on it, why limit it to accounting?
For a while there the Charter of Budget Honesty seemed to have replaced Magna Carta as the bedrock of Australian parliamentary democracy. In the last week of the election campaign Michelle Grattan probably spoke for a commentarian consensus when she urged that “the parties should be asked to promise that in future campaigns they’ll take the costing provisions seriously”. “[T]he charade” she said “is just so offensive”. Rob Oakeshott had picked up promise-costing as a central theme in his conspicuous display of political delicacy as he decided which party’s inducements he would accept.
The impeccable professionals of Treasury who are the auditors of policy costing still work for the government of the day, and some of their policy assumptions (like taking the National Broadband Network off budget) and some of their costings (like the projected revenues from the new mining tax) are highly debatable. Should Oppositions really be expected, or even encouraged, to lock themselves in to program detail before they settle in to their ministerial chairs? I have sympathy for Treasurers and Shadow Treasurers who prefer to tie their credibility to a total fiscal outcome, implying that they will fit their policy deliveries to that over-riding target, a much more rational approach. However, that implies that individual programs should be allowed to become elastic in implementation. Heaven forbid!
Parliamentary reform was not prominent in the public debate before the election. By the standards of mandate theory it deserves about 4/150th of the time of the new Parliament, yet it will be the first commitment of the new Gillard government. It will likely prove that few of the Gillard government’s hand-outs to Windsor and Oakeshott when they are all revealed were put to the electors in the August election. How honest is that?
“Budget honesty” and “stability” are really obverses of each other, both trying to make a fixture of the deal of the moment. As one of the 80+ per cent of electors who voted for one of the major parties, and as one of the 90+ per cent who did not vote in the independents’ electorates, I propose a more substantial virtue - political accountability
I propose a Charter of Political Accountability that is concerned with honest relations between members of Parliament and the whole electorate. I urge all parties and independents to subscribe to it. The commentariat should hound them all until they do. Here is its simple and unarguable principle.
Since the overwhelming majority of the Australian electorate voted on the basis of the platforms of the political parties as they stood on the day of the election, in the event of a hung parliament all players in any negotiation should accept the obligation to work within those platforms. No new policies. No Katter brain snaps or Oakeshottian riffs. No shadowy party consultants. We could have a government within a week of the ballot, and no one could accuse the independents of selling their votes. The independents would bring no bacon back to their electorates, but wouldn’t they look virtuous! And we would be spared the repellent sight of independents gorging at the taxpayers’ table while pretending to be on a diet.
Having chosen the party they prefer to form government, the independents would be free to promote their political pets in an open and transparent way. Since they lack a national mandate their bids should all go through the Parliament’s committee system - which the independents say they wish to strengthen - in competition with alternatives from the government, other parties and other backbenchers. Much more honest and stable than events of the last two weeks.
If you’ve come with me this far, it shouldn’t be hard to take the next step. After the calling of an election, all parties should have one week to declare their policies, and then be limited for the rest of the campaign to explaining, promoting and costing them. No more promissory tours of marginal seats, those travelling bribe-fests that demean our democracy. At least the non-marginal electors will be able to see the full cost of electoral competition up front. The parties may even become more restrained in bribing the marginals.
It seems to me that the regulation of political accountability would do more for our democracy than arguing about the costings of Horvath or Henry, ephemeral as they will prove to be. And a stability that limited deal-making by those who represent only handfuls of voters would be far more democratic than locking those deals into place for three years. For those same reasons political accountability will never win a majority in Parliament, especially a hung parliament. The commentariat will probably stick with the simpler pursuit of accounting gotchas.
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