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 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.