Of all the institutions that need to be reformed to cope with new realities it is state parliaments that should top the list. State governments are also highly ranked but reform of parliaments will help governmental reform.
In New South Wales this year the Legislative Assembly is planning to sit for 50 days, and the Legislative Council for 39. In six of the 12 months there will be no sitting days. Even turning up for that many days is probably excessive. Over the last five years the Parliament has considered between 108 and 141 Government bills a year. There are usually about 500 amendments to deal with. There are a few non-government bills and roughly as many Acts are repealed as are passed. A lot of this work is non-contentious, or even unnecessary, and could be dealt with quickly.
The Western Australian Parliament sits a little more frequently but most sit less often. Last year in Victoria there were only 38 sitting days, with the excuse that it was an election year. The Northern Territory Parliament plans to sit for 35 days this year.
In our six state and two territory governments we have nearly 600 MPs who must be supplied with staff, offices, equipment, cars, travel entitlements and so on.
Most of these people have nothing to do with government, do what ever they are told by their party in relation to voting on legislation, and make very little social contribution of any kind. Their sole responsibility is to get themselves re-elected, at our expense.
All states except Queensland have Upper Houses. These are a total waste of time and money. The inhabitants of these strange environments claim that they act as a brake on governments and perform a vital role in reviewing legislation. But the vast majority of state government action is administrative, not legislative, and parliaments have little control over governments’ day-to-day affairs. There is no noticeable difference between Queensland and the territories’ governmental behaviour and that of the other states that could justify the existence of Upper Houses.
In days gone by state parliaments sat from 4pm until 10 or 11pm so that people could work at their normal job and then go to parliament to be an MP for the evening. Ministers were expected to work full time, but not members. There is no reason being a state MP should not again become a part time job, with expectations of attending sittings on 40 to 50 evenings a year. States could survive quite easily with less than ten ministers, each with about 25 per cent of the staff they now have. (States are usually run by the Premier’s Office and Department anyway.)
Clearly a key current function of state parliaments is the preservation of existing political parties, which would collapse without the jobs and financial support they derive from elected MPs.
Most people who complain about these matters advocate the abolition of state governments. But that would be almost impossible constitutionally and would result in excessive centralisation or put significant administration in the hands of a chaotic system of local government. The answer is to create more states.
This can be achieved by a referendum within the states that would lose territory to the new state. For example the Hunter Valley and northern NSW could become a new state, and the ACT could take in the southern highlands to form another State, leaving Sydney with much less hinterland to worry about, by a vote of only the people in NSW. Any state needs to include at least five federal electorates.
An Australia with, something like, 12 to 15 states sounds terribly radical in these conservative and fearful times, but less than 40 years ago people were deeply concerned about the ACT getting its own parliament instead of being run by the Commonwealth.
In 1901, when the Commonwealth was founded and the six states established, there were about 1.35 million people in NSW, half a million in Queensland and well under 200,000 in Tasmania and in Western Australia. The total European population of Australia then was about half the current population of Sydney.
Fifteen state parliaments, each with one chamber of 30 members, (for a total well below the current number of state MPs) would be cheaper, much more efficient, more locally relevant and answerable, and more encouraging of citizen engagement than the current structure. Each state would have six federal senators.
And each state would have the incentive and the power to reform local government within its boundaries. Mayors, who are generally paid for that role, could automatically sit in the state parliament along with members elected in the normal manner. The fact that the Independent Clover Moore is the Mayor of Sydney and sits in the NSW State Parliament (and has been re-elected to Parliament as mayor) proves that this is possible.
More than a century ago the people of Australia made the effort to update their political institutional structure. They created a national parliament where none had previously existed and converted six British colonies into Australian states. Compared to that effort the formation of a few more states should be easy. But at that time the nation’s leaders were driving change. Now our political leaders are the most conservative and reactionary element of our community. When real change comes it will be like the breaking of a drought.