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Our governance framework needs an overhaul

By Klaas Woldring - posted Monday, 11 October 2010

The Premier of New South Wales has recently called for "new blood" for the pre-selection of ALP candidates contesting the March 2011 state election. This innovative attitude should benefit the NSW ALP. It could well benefit the entire political system.

In a subsequent interview by the ABC's Quentin Dempster, Mrs Kristina Keneally further elaborated on this suggestion by mentioning that something similar to the US primaries could be introduced. While a variety of primaries in the US are used for different elections, the underlying principle is that non-party members are given an effective voice in the selection of candidates for political office. In certain primaries the candidate themselves may not even be a member of the party that recruits them.

While the rules of the Australian political parties would have to be changed the suggestion does make sense, especially because party membership has declined enormously in the last 20 years. Active membership is often very small. In a soon to be released book, Rodney Cavalier, a former NSW ALP Education Minister, has traced the decline of both membership and values of the NSW ALP in recent decades. The title of the book, reviewed by Andrew West for the Sydney Morning Herald, says it all: Power Crisis: The Self-Destruction of a State Labour Party. Cavalier's book is described as "brutally honest".


Mrs Keneally could take framework innovation a lot further if she could persuade her party to adopt the practice of selecting Cabinet Ministers from outside the Parliament. This is quite common in non-Westminster parliamentary systems, both among the European extra-parliamentary executives and in the US Congressional/Presidential system.

This separation of powers (Trias Politica), advocated by the French Baron de Montesquieu as forming a strong framework for good government, has many advantages. What is meant here is the quite strict division of branches into a separate political executive, legislature and judiciary. One great advantage is that the choice for the party leader to attract functional expertise is much wider than is possible under the Westminster system in which there is a fusion between the political executive and the legislature.

Ministers have to be selected only from among the elected MPs. As a result they are often functional amateurs who have to rely heavily on public servants. Especially in small legislatures, the requirement that Ministers have to be chosen from a small number of elected MPs is fraught with problems. The NSW Government certainly has suffered greatly from this restriction in recent years.

It is interesting that Bob Hawke suggested this reform in his Boyer Lectures of 1979. He recommended that half the Cabinet should be recruited from outside the Parliament. As far as I can find out, the NSW (written) Constitution does not require Ministers to have been elected as an MP (although, in contrast, at the federal level this is a constitutional requirement). Therefore, such a reform could be adopted by the NSW ALP as a policy change. It could well result in "new blood" at a ministerial level and, equally important, greater expertise. Naturally, the same reasoning would apply to the Coalition parties.

Quite apart from that, the Westminster requirement that Ministers need to be "in and of the Parliament", whether constitutionally or by convention, means that the political executive dominates the legislature. In the adversarial environment of all of Australia's Parliaments this actually detracts greatly from the legislative role of the legislatures.

Moreover, if the government is selected from outsiders by the party or coalition that has won an election, the elected legislators are not normally in line for ministerial appointments. Their behaviour, therefore, will be different, they are more independent as they don't have to curry favour with the party hierarchies. The legislature would come into its own as a democratic institution and is not just a kind of consultative assembly.


Of course the governance framework will also be affected by the electoral system and the constitution(s), in different ways, as argued in a previous article. What needs to be considered here, given the result in the recent federal election, is that many Australians are in fact tired of the major parties and the system as a whole. We could well be looking here at just the tip of the iceberg of discontent.

A recent Australia Policy Online article, by Brian Costar and Peter Browne, estimates the number of people who did not vote, but would be eligible to vote, at 3,250,000. As the authors point out, given that ours is a system based on compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting, this is indicative of serious, widespread unhappiness.

As there is no suggestion that the major parties have any governance framework change in mind at all, the kind of innovative suggestion that has been made by the NSW Premier Keneally is refreshing indeed. Nevertheless, it is clear that most of such concrete proposals will have to come from the Greens and the Independents who have significance balance of power capacity in the present set up. Are THEY considering just how important it is to initiate action now?

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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