Democratic renewal – filling the gaps

Much of my thinking on the questions listed in the governance
background paper
has been shaped by contributors to the Centre for
Policy Development – a couple of whom, Janette Hartz-Karp and Lyn Carson, are participants in the governance stream, while others, like Marcus Westbury, have ended up elsewhere.

As CPD subscribers will know, we produced a special ‘reclaiming democracy‘ edition of our online magazine InSight immediately after last year’s election which covered quite a lot of ground – from the misuse of government advertising budgets to the poor state of FOI (that one was by the governance stream chair John Hartigan).

We also put together a table listing various issues affecting the
health of Australia’s democratic culture and outlining what the federal
Labor government plans to do about them: see
I have to say that so far I’m pretty impressed. The new government has taken or
promised action on the vast majority of issues that were identified by
the CPD and others researching this issue (e.g. Get Up, the Democratic
Audit and Australian Collaboration).

Here are some of the gaps I’ve identified so far:

  • The restoration of the previous parliamentary committee
    system is welcome, but we could do much more to recognise the
    importance of parliamentary committees in tackling the long-term issues
    that tend to be sidelined by short-term political concerns. David
    Yencken & Nicola Henry have put forward some interesting ideas on
    how this could be done in ‘Democracy Under Seige’ (my favorite is Finland’s permanent ‘Committee for the Future’). Sue Harris-Rimmer’s 2020 summit idea involves better resourcing of the Senate Committee on Regulations
    and Ordinances. And as the ‘team leader’ of the ‘open government and media’ group of the media stream has noted, the ever-increasing power
    of the executive necessitates fundamental reform.
  • The 12-month restriction on former Ministers having ‘business
    dealings with members of the Government, the Public Service or the
    Defence Force on any matters that they dealt with in an official
    capacity in the preceding 18 months’ is welcome, but I think it needs
    to be accompanied by broader – and longer – restrictions on lobbying.
    Canada’s equivalent act prohibits not just Ministers but ministerial
    staffers and senior public servants from lobbying the government for
    five years after leaving office, period. When it comes to preventing
    conflicts of interest – and the appearance of them – it’s
    better to err on the side of caution.
  • The Democratic Audit’s
    Norman Abjorensen has noted that other countries have done much more to
    restore safeguards of (and therefore public trust in) Parliaments than
    just passing Ministerial Codes of Conduct– for example Canada now has a statutory Ethics Commissioner.
  • The
    NIC has been scrapped and Jenny Macklin has pledged to consult with
    Indigenous Australians on the structure of an Indigenous representative
    body. Given the fact that these bodies keep being established by one
    government and scrapped by another, a lot of thought needs to go into
    making the new body a) adaptable (for example by including a mechanism
    for participatory review and reform of the body in the same act that
    establishes it) and b) resilient (for example by giving it a source of
    funding independent of the government of the day – perhaps along the lines of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council?)
  • We
    haven’t heard a peep about concentration of media ownership. I would
    argue that media diversity is central to any debate about how we
    improve the quality of governance over the long term. I’ll post a few
    ideas on the future of the fourth estate in Australia shortly.
  • State
    and federal governments from both major parties often succumb to the
    temptation to skew government spending to favour marginal seats. Crikey
    reported that in the lead-up to last year’s election, the Coalition
    outspent Labor in NSW and QLD, while Labor outspent the Coalition in
    WA. I don’t have any specific ideas on what can be done about this,
    except for better public reporting of discretionary spending by
    electorate – and perhaps some restrictions on discretiionary spending by Ministers, as argued in this budget submission by McAuley et al.