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Reforming and modernising our government

By George Williams - posted Monday, 13 August 2007

The Haneef case, Australia's broken federal system, the lack of ministerial responsibility and the decline in confidence in public institutions are all symptoms of a larger problem.

It is the failure of our parliaments and political leaders to update and renew Australia's system of law and government in line with the realities of the modern world. While other countries have embraced reform, we have long since fallen behind.

This is one of the missing issues of this year's federal election. Its absence is even more apparent because of developments in Britain, from where our law and institutions of government are derived.


Unlike newly installed Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his predecessor, Tony Blair, neither John Howard nor Kevin Rudd have proposed an ambitious agenda for modernising Australian government. Ours is a nation in which a lack of vision and imagination, combined with political self-interest, stand in the way of reform.

Upon becoming Prime Minister in late June, Brown's first major announcement started a public debate on far-reaching changes to how Britain is governed. His green paper calls for constitutional change that "entrusts more power to parliament and the British people".

It follows reforms initiated by Blair, including to the House of Lords, a new UK Supreme Court and the enactment of the UK's first Bill of Rights. Brown is promising to take this much further. Indeed, if he implements his program in full it will be the greatest wave of reform to law and government for at least a century.

Brown's agenda focuses on the relationship between parliament and the executive, the appointment of judges and other public officers and improving British democracy.

When it comes to the first, people often refer to the sovereignty of parliament. However, in countries such as Britain and Australia, this has long been a fiction. The real power lies with the executive, directed by the prime minister and ministers, who, with the aid of party discipline, can exert control over most aspects of parliament.

The shift in power to the executive has accelerated over the past decade, especially after September 11. The need for new legislation to protect the community from terrorism provided both a policy rationale and an often handy excuse for transferring power and decision-making functions to government. This has been at the expense of both parliament and the courts.


Remarkably, Brown is promising to reverse this trend. In 12 key areas, he is prepared to surrender or limit executive power and transfer back responsibility to parliament and other independent decision-makers.

These powers concern long neglected aspects of governance, many of which remain unchanged because of the benefits they bring to those in government. One example is the inadequate, often non-existent regulation of ministerial advisers, something that can allow governments to deflect blame and avoid scrutiny. Brown's plan is to introduce legislation to clarify the proper role of these advisers.

The most contentious reform is to the power of government to deploy troops abroad to a conflict like that in Iraq. The proposal is to give parliament the ultimate say on such decisions, perhaps in the form of a veto.

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First published in The Australian on August 3, 2007 as "Vision is needed to drive reforms".

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About the Author

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.

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