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Cosmetic reform or real reform?

By Jo Page - posted Thursday, 16 September 2010

With Parliament about to resume soon, the short-lived consensus on “consensus government” is already over. The day after Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott gave Julia Gillard the 76 votes she needed, “misunderstandings” were evident about the mining tax and what had been agreed. The Independents thought the mining rent tax would be included in the full scale review of the Henry Review. The government said it wouldn’t - well, maybe the resources tax Ken Henry initially proposed but not the modified rent tax to which the government was wholly committed. On these and other issues Tony Abbott announced the Opposition would be “ferociously” holding the government to account.

A few days before, in the euphoria of the bidding war to secure government, all sides were committed to “a new paradigm” of politics; less adversarial, less confrontational, more consensual, gentler than in the past. The media toadies, momentarily forgetting that conflict is news, went along with the game. So contrite about their past performances were the two major parties that they readily agreed to streamline parliamentary procedures which had previously aggravated the tensions between them.

Nudged by the Independents they agreed to give the Speaker an “independent” role, limit questions posed in question time to 45 seconds and answers to four minutes. And after three years of bickering about “relevance”, they agreed answers should “relate directly to the question”.


A number of similarly cosmetic changes were agreed, notably the creation of a Parliamentary Budget Office to provide independent costings and fiscal analysis to all members of Parliament. The most contentious proposition was to recognise traditional owners before prayers each sitting day. National Party leader Warren Truss MP thought this downplayed the Christian ethic. It remains to be seen whether the traditional owners to be recognised are those who once occupied the Parliament House site or whether some more inclusive statement is required to cover the whole federation.

The agreed changes still have to be worked through in detail before they can be put into effect. They may make Parliamentary processes and the political debate more civil but they will not necessarily be more effective in holding the Executive to account, whether ferociously or not.

Similarly a greater involvement of ordinary MPs in a slightly narrower range of House of Representative committees will not ensure the Executive adopts all recommendations. Perhaps the committees will go the way of the one the Greens have proposed as a means of advancing a tax on carbon. For that committee, only members already committed to a particular outcome need apply and unelected experts appointed from outside Parliament will take full part in deliberations.

More fantastically as the Sydney Morning Herald reported on September 9, 2010 the Greens propose to shift sides as they fancy and so make the Opposition a truly “alternative” government. In that spirit they have offered to support Tony Abbott’s parental leave scheme rather than the less generous Labor scheme.

These examples show that Parliamentary reform is far too important to be left to politicians. Our electoral system is designed to elect representatives to protect and advance our interests but the party system, based on policy packages aimed at special interest groups and marginal electorates and supplemented by election promises, confuses the issue of what “our” interests are. Are we more or less tied to hip pocket and other personal interests, to local issues or to national interests? These nuances were largely disregarded in the unrepresentative way in which our representatives resolved the question of who was to be declared winner of the tightest election in 80 years.

All the “independents” were willing to consider financial incentives that would benefit their constituents. In some cases paradoxically, less became more when more generous Coalition offers were rejected in favour of Labor promises. Other factors were more ideological. Greens candidate Adam Bandt, now member for Melbourne, was a foregone conclusion, having told his electorate in advance that he would support a Labor Government. Andrew Wilkie, elected to Denison by a hair’s breadth, noted that his electorate had been Labor for 20 years as one reason for him to support a Labor Government. Bob Katter (Kennedy) purported to be acting to “save the bush” and as a Queenslander loyal to a deposed Prime Minister from Queensland. Rob Oakeshott (Lyne) and Tony Windsor (New England) asserted they were acting in the “national interest” regardless of what their own constituents might have thought. In the end it seemed the two acted from self interest thinking they would be more likely to retain their new found influence under a Labor government that was more wary than the Coalition of facing another election.


The hung Parliament has thus produced a government in thrall to three or four individuals who are committed to no broad philosophy, no particular set of policies, programs and services, and who are demanding the right to pick and choose which government proposals they will support. Wilkie, Oakeshott and Windsor say they will not support “frivolous” motions of no confidence but have reserved the right to move such motions themselves if circumstances require: whose interests they will represent and what criteria they will use to make decisions in future was not clear.

The Westminster system envisages that people- those qualified to vote- will choose others to represent them and their interests as the representative sees fit. It is taken for granted that the electorate will accept whatever decision the representative makes in good faith. In earlier eras, without modern communications, that was the most practical course for ensuring government would deal with authority as events and situations changed. Few electors could inform themselves well enough to judge whether government decisions were right or wrong.

Now there is much more scope for informing the electorate. But most politicians continue to rely on the same old tools: the public meeting, the face to face and telephone contact, the occasional newsletter printed and published at taxpayer expense which only regurgitates “achievements” with lines provided to the party faithful by spin doctors. The party system, essentially the two-party system we inherited from days long before any popular franchise, stands between the people and their representatives.

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About the Author

Jo Page is a former public servant with experience of sitting alongside senior officers at Senate Estimates hearings.

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All articles by Jo Page

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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