Several years ago a group of academics, lawyers and retired members of parliament formed the Accountability Round Table. It has become a leading non-partisan group in the fight for greater ministerial accountability in Australian parliaments. It has made submissions to most of these parliaments on matters of deep concern not only to themselves but to a population at large which is becoming increasingly cynical about the efficacy of our political system. The Accountability Round Table has condemned the legislation now before the Queensland Parliament in which the senior executive members of both Government and the Opposition have combined to remove its independent sovereignty.
Whether through ignorance or design, one certainly suspects the latter, the legislation strikes at the democratic heart of the parliament and runs counter to the doctrine of the separation of powers. The separation of the powers and functions of the three decision making arms, parliament, executive government and the judiciary, provides the fundamental checks and balances in any truly democratic society. The concern of the Accountability Round Table is that if implemented this so called reform will create a dangerous precedent for all our parliamentary democracies.
When introducing the Parliament of Queensland (Reform and Modernisation) Amendment Bill the Premier gave no explanation for accepting a series of recommendations (8 to 13) which were beyond the terms of reference of the Committee System Review Committee. In particular the reasons behind the Review Committee's recommendation that the membership of the newly formed Legislative Assembly Committee be confined to the government and opposition leadership should not be adopted without some cogent explanation. The fact that the chair will have a casting vote delivers total authority to the government of the day.
Opposition support seems to repudiate the LNP's expressed interest in a more open parliament at the last election when it made an issue of creating a more functional public accounts committee. It is hoped that new LNP leader Campbell Newman will take a line which will be both electorally popular and have high moral integrity, and direct the parliamentary party to oppose the legislation.
The legislation sidelines the Speaker, traditionally the custodian of member's rights and privileges, and in an act of supreme insult will 'invite' him to attend meetings in an ex-officio capacity when standing orders are being considered. More importantly it sidelines rank and file members by tightening the executive's iron fist over every practical aspect of parliamentary function. It is the exact opposite to what is required to give Queensland a truly representative parliament.
The Accountability Round Table believes giving control and supervision over all things parliamentary affecting the Legislative Assembly of Queensland to a committee consisting of government ministers and opposition executives amounts to a vote of no confidence in the current Speaker and all future Speakers and in current and future backbenchers of all parties.
The legislation is flawed because international experience has shown that legislatures controlled by the executive have failed to provide democratic government. This is because executive interests run counter to those of rank and file and members. Also the executive has little time to diligently attend to these responsibilities and invariably delegates the detail to a faceless bureaucracy. This was evident in the UK House of Commons during the latter years of the Labor government in which an increasing stranglehold of executive over parliamentary functions, including the function of the Speaker, led to a series of scandals and a comprehensive review of parliamentary practice.
Queensland's single house parliament means that greater power must be given to rank and file members to exercise what may be described as the second house factor. The fundamental role of members is to represent their constituents but the iron hand of leadership, supposedly in the interests of party solidarity, has the reverse effect. Stifling freedom of speech leads to discontent, bad practice, and division which, in turn, leads to poorer representation of the people's interests.
In summary the legislation extends executive control over a parliament already notorious for executive domination. It repudiates early attempts to fix this problem and is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Bjelke-Petersen years and of the problems exposed by the Fitzgerald Report.
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