Present Parliamentary Problems

Their Identification and Proposals for Rectification

by Maurie Fabrikant – August 2008

Contents

Preamble
Specific Problems Identified
Proposed Solutions
Concluding Remarks
Appendix 1 – Politicians Break Promises
Appendix 2 – Citizens Can Override Government Decisions
Appendix 3 – Political Parties Control Parliamentary Members
Appendix 4 – A New Parliamentary System Proposed
Appendix 5 – Who May Be A Parliamentary Candidate
Appendix 6 – Appointments To A Public Service Board
Appendix 7 – Appointments To A Politicians’ Pay Board
Appendix 8 – Appointments To A Politicians’ Education Board

Preamble

Increasingly – it seems to me – many citizens believe that parliamentary representatives are relatively untrustworthy individuals. Especially during the past decade or two, promises made by representatives during an election campaign – particularly those made by the Prime Minister, a Premier or senior Ministers – are broken as a matter of course. Such promises are – after the election – often qualified as “non-core”; this – presumably – means that they were never “real” promises! (See Appendix 1.)Parliamentary representatives frequently make trips overseas – allegedly to study something of relevance to their portfolio or simply to “wave the Australian flag” at some international conference or other event – but, since they are often accompanied by their partner, such trips are generally thought to be mere “junkets”, very expensive holidays paid for by tax-payers with, perhaps, a little work-related activity “squeezed in for the sake of appearance”.

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Citizens generally also appear to be extremely disillusioned with much of the political process; this probably explains why so few “get involved”. I believe it most noteworthy – is “tragic” overstating it? – that the major political parties in Australia can attract membership of the order of only one quarter of one percent of citizens of voting age! In other words, well over 99% of citizens who have the duty to vote fail to take the opportunity to become members – active or otherwise! – of a political party … and that means that they are unlikely to ever occupy a seat in a parliament! Almost invariably – except when they attend a polling booth – the great majority of citizens limit their actions regarding governments to “whingeing to their mates” when their views differ from that of the government. Relatively rarely, some citizens will write a letter to the editor of a major daily newspaper in an attempt to raise an issue for general consideration by citizens. Even more rarely will such an attempt lead to such an enthusiastic – and widely-supported – outcry that the government concerned will enact legislation in accord with the citizens’ demand, regardless of its previous stance. (See Appendix 2.)

The foregoing perhaps explains why a very large minority of voters – of the order of 35% – invariably vote for a candidate pre-selected by the Australian Labour Party (ALP), a similar large minority invariably vote for a candidate pre-selected by either the Liberal Party (LP) or the National Party (NP) while the remaining voters “swing” among the foregoing or vote for some other candidate, perhaps an independent … or lodge an “informal” vote as a protest. (Note that almost all of the “How to Vote” cards that are handed out by the few “party faithful” at polling booths on the day of an election emphasise “The Party” – not “The Person” – even though it is “The Person” – not “The Party” – that is contesting the election!) Due, however, to Australia’s “love affair” with single-member electorates in the lower house of the Federal Government and in all lower houses of state government – except for Tasmania – it is most unusual that an independent candidate – or one belonging to a minor party – will occupy a parliamentary seat in a lower house. The vast majority of parliamentary representatives will, therefore, belong to – and, to a large extent and, regrettably, be controlled by! – the ALP, LP or NP. (See Appendix 3.)

Specific Problems Identified

I have identified some problems that must be rectified … the sooner, the better. They are described in some detail – with reference to further appendices – below:-

Political Parties’ Power

Political parties nowadays exercise enormous power; far too much power, in fact! Such parties can – and almost invariably do – force their parliamentary members to vote “on party lines” regardless of the wishes of those members and of those members’ electors. (See Appendix 3.)

Spending on Electioneering

Election spending is limited only by a party’s – and an individual candidate’s – available financial resources. Political parties are only too pleased to accept sizable gifts from wealthy persons, both natural and corporate. Federal and state legislation demands that such gifts – above some specified threshold – be disclosed but there is a strongly held suspicion that this legislation is very frequently ignored. Naturally, these gifts may be made with “strings – very firmly – attached”! As has been frequently seen, much money may be spent in those electorates where a party is desperate to succeed. Conversely, little – or even none! – will be spent in an electorate where a party believes it has no chance of success, the intention being to conserve its – relatively scarce – financial – and human – resources. It is most unusual for the LP and NP to contest the same electorate. That sounds to me as if – for all intents and purposes – their policies are identical! In other words, it doesn’t matter which of those two candidates occupies the seat because their parliamentary vote – provided they don’t “cross the floor” – would be the same!

Parliamentary Representatives’ Qualifications

Whereas most persons who earn income from some “specialty” – for example, as an accountant, electrician, medical practitioner or articulated-truck-driver – must have some license and/or membership of a professional body and/or relevant qualification to fit them for that “specialty”, a parliamentary representative is not required to have undergone any formal training! Such parliamentary representatives may have never demonstrated knowledge of economics, the environment, foreign affairs or sociology yet are expected to make sound decisions – many based on these disciplines – that may very substantially affect the lives of virtually every citizen. Furthermore, those representatives will continue to be paid whether or not they “do their job” effectively! Their position in the parliament is as if they were apprentices … but with an important difference; namely, they are not required to prove competence as parliamentary representatives – within some nominated time – in order to retain their seat! As has often been seen, incompetent representatives may retain their seats, election after election. They merely remain as “time-servers”, their major contributions (?) being to ensure that no other citizens – no matter how talented and valuable – may occupy those parliamentary seats! Surely that demonstrates – quite conclusively! – that such representatives are NOT expected to think about the matters debated. Their duty is simply to VOTE … as their party DICTATES!

Public Servants’ Independence

The representatives of the governing party – or parties; often, only a coalition will secure a majority of parliamentary seats! – have assumed the power to employ – and to sack – heads of public service departments thus impartial advice of the most important kind is no longer available to the government. Instead, the surviving departmental heads – quite understandably because their personal financial futures are at stake! – tell the government “that which it wants to hear” … which may – of course – be far removed from reality. It is doubtful that Australian citizens will ever be told the real truth of the “Children Overboard” and the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” statements uttered by the Howard Government, allegedly based on the “impartial advice” authorised by departmental heads.

Parliamentary Representatives’ Financial Rewards

Parliamentary representatives’ pay contains “perks”, details of which are grudgingly admitted; they are certainly never readily brought to citizens’ attention. This is hardly surprising as these representatives decide their own salary packages and pay rises! For example, I understand that parliamentary members may eat very well in “silver-service” dining rooms – that are not open to the general public – at prices that are very low compared with the salaries that those members are paid. (I wonder how much Fringe Benefits Tax is paid on these low-priced meals!) It is very rare for members of the opposition to vote with those of the government but they generally do so when their own financial rewards are considered! These parliamentary members also determine the superannuation benefits that are payable to them … and when those benefits become payable. It is not surprising that these benefits are far, far superior to those conferred upon most other classes of citizens.

Proposed Solutions

It is – of course – a relatively simple matter to identify problems. In this section, I propose solutions that are intended to eradicate those problems and which – I am hopeful – will be acceptable to citizens generally, regardless of their political leaning … if any! The numbered paragraphs in this section correspond with similarly numbered paragraphs in the preceding section.

Political Parties’ Power

To commence to break the power of political parties, it will first be necessary to enact legislation that requires every motion debated in every parliament to be voted upon – unambiguously – by all parliamentary representatives. No longer would the Speaker’s words, “Those in favour, say ‘aye’, of the contrary, say ‘nay’; I think the ‘ayes’ have it.”, be acceptable. Instead, every parliamentary representative’s name and vote – “yes” or “no” or “no vote stated” – must be formally recorded in Hansard … and reported in all news media on the immediately following day. This change will require further legislation that will cause revocation of the right to operate a news medium if the operator fails to sufficiently clearly – and prominently – report all parliamentary representatives’ votes. Furthermore, when a representative’s vote on a motion differs from his or her stated policy prior to the most recent election contested by that candidate, that discrepancy must also be prominently reported in all news media. These requirements will enable voters to monitor the behaviour of their representatives in parliament and, if necessary, remind them of the promises they made to their electors. Obviously, if this change is to succeed, a majority of citizens must demand that all parliamentary representatives – regardless of party allegiance – must vote for the legislation nominated above … or face very probable defeat at the next election.

Spending on Electioneering

To further break the power of political parties, it will next be necessary to enact further legislation that limits candidates’ spending – up to some predefined maximum – on their election campaigns, the only source of funding permitted being public revenue. Very punitive penalties would be applied to candidates found to be in breach of such legislation. While all candidates would be at liberty to choose the manner in which their election allocation was spent – for example, via letterbox drops or local newspaper or other news media advertising – the grand total permitted – per candidate – must not be exceeded. This would ensure that every candidate enjoyed a “truly level playing field”; no candidate could gain an advantage simply by spending more on their election campaign. With only a minor addition to the powers of the several Electoral Commissions in Australia, staff of these bodies would supervise all aspects of all candidates’ election campaigns and would be the only persons able to authorize spending on election campaigns. For this change to succeed, a majority of citizens must make demands similar to those described in the paragraph above.

Parliamentary Representatives’ Qualifications

Assuming that the two preceding initiatives are actually implemented, political parties would begin to “wither on the vine” as they would find it impossible to dictate how their parliamentary members vote in the parliaments. The reason for this is that political parties could no longer attract the financial support of wealthy “backers” because these “backers” could no longer be virtually guaranteed the passage of their desired legislation in a parliament. Furthermore, the parliament would be transformed because representatives would invariably make decisions as they presently do on those rare occasions when they are permitted “conscience votes”. In fact, the parliament would become a forum populated only by independents beholden to no-one but themselves and their electors. This would obviously require some far-reaching changes to the manner in which parliamentary business would be conducted; this is addressed in some detail in Appendix 4. Without pre-selection of candidates by parties, any Australian citizen could be nominated as a candidate in a specific electorate provided that they met the conditions specified in Appendix 5. This would virtually guarantee that only citizens who had the confidence of several electors could occupy a seat in a parliament.

Public Servants’ Independence

The federal and state bodies which used to be known as “Public Service Boards” must be revitalized. No longer would parliamentary representatives have the power to “hire and fire” the heads of public service departments. Instead, this would become the preserve of one of the public service boards which would also have the power to “hire and fire” all public servants; that is, those citizens who have the responsibility to administer the legislation that is enacted in the parliaments. Further details are provided in Appendix 6.

Parliamentary Representatives’ Financial Rewards

A new body – possibly known as “The Parliamentary Representatives Terms of Employment Board” – must be established. Its only duties would be to set – then monitor – the terms and conditions of employment that apply to all parliamentary representatives in all parliaments in Australia. It would also determine the maximum permitted spending on a parliamentary candidate’s election campaign. Relevant details are provided in Appendix 7.

Concluding Remarks

According to the Old Testament, Moses saw that all of his mates – “Israelites”, slaves in Egypt – were experiencing a “real hard time” so Moses planned to “shoot through” and take them with him. Perhaps with “supernatural” assistance, perhaps without – I’ll leave you to decide the details of that Exodus! – Moses led his mates away to “the Promised Land”. No more “real hard times” for them!

Whether or not that story about Moses and his mates is true, I believe humans have reached the point where a similar “Exodus” has become imperative! I believe most citizens in Australia – and in many other countries, too! – are suffering from extraordinarily baneful parliamentary enactments that cause those citizens to work ever harder and longer – in spite of incredibly advanced technology – merely to survive! In other words, they, too, are experiencing a “real hard time”; they, also, need to “shoot through”!

Recall that in 1966, decimal currency was introduced into Australia. Now, several governments – all with the best Treasurers available? – have allowed the Australian dollar to lose about 95% of its original value! That’s right! The Australian dollar is now worth only about 5% of the value it commanded a little over forty years ago! What has that done to your savings? Is this rate of decline – an average of about 6.9% per year – going to continue? Where will that leave your children … and mine?

And what of Australian citizens’ ownership of assets? Taxes paid by our parents and grandparents – and even earlier generations – built up federally-owned assets such as Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Melbourne International Airport, Post Master General’s Department (Oops! Australia Post and Telstra!) and Qantas. And even more taxes – paid by those same parents and grandparents and others – also built up sundry state-owned assets. In Victoria, notable examples of these were Gas & Fuel Corporation, Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, State Electricity Commission of Victoria and Victorian Railways. All of these – and others! – have been sold … not necessarily to the highest bidders, not necessarily to Australians!

Are the present levels of economy, reliability and service improved as a result of this privatisation? My view is that there has been degradation in all three aspects! Furthermore, many of these bodies used to provide first-class training in trades and in management. No such training is now provided by these privatised bodies and it’s no surprise that this country now suffers from a shortage of adequately-trained personnel.

It is often stated that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

However, I contend that our parliamentary systems are broken – very badly broken and in need of major “surgery”! – mainly because we have permitted parliamentary parties to acquire almost unlimited power and to decide policy – without being bound by the decisions made by “rank and file” members at “branch” level – “behind closed doors”. Our parliaments are places where “charades of democracy” are played, the intention being to persuade citizens to believe that our interests are in the best of hands. What utter nonsense! Our parliaments have been degraded to places where politicians simply “sell” – not debate! – policy … mainly by “slinging mud” at those “on the other side” then voting “on party lines”!

The time has come for us to behave like Moses did; namely, to look after our mates – and ourselves and, particularly, our successors – by escaping from this “Alice in Wonderland” trickery that masquerades as “democratic government”! Unlike Moses, I’m not intending to move to another location. Instead, my job is to change our incredibly odious parliamentary systems.

Will you help me?

Appendix 1 – Politicians Break Promises

Shortly before Bob Hawke became the Prime Minister, most citizens – especially members of the ALP – were of the opinion that Australian uranium should not be sold to French interests because – at that time – the French Government had authorised the conduct of nuclear experiments in the South Pacific, a location on Earth about as far distant from France as is possible. No radiation problems for them! In spite of this general resistance – expressed by many candidates pre-selected by the ALP before the election – the Hawke Government – shortly after taking office – authorised the sale of uranium to France!

In the late 1990s, John Howard promised that there would “never, ever” be a generally-applied sales tax,  remembering – no doubt – that Paul Keating’s attempt – while the Treasurer in the Hawke Government – was  soundly defeated at a referendum and that John Hewson had lost an “un-losable” election by supporting such a tax. Nonetheless, within two years, the Howard Government introduced the GST in spite of widespread opposition … including that of many LP and NP parliamentarians and branch members!

Appendix 2 – Citizens Can Override Government Decisions

In the early 1960s, the Menzies Government enacted legislation to raise the sales tax payable on the purchase of a new car from 20% to 30%. The public outcry was so bitter and voluminous that the Menzies Government “caved in” and enacted legislation – within about a month – to revert to 20% sales tax. (Incidentally, those purchasers who had paid 30% sales tax did not receive a refund! Note that the difference in the sales tax levied was very substantial and represented about two months of pay at the base adult pay-rate at that time on the purchase of a new Holden or Falcon sedan!) Thus there is no doubt that a well-orchestrated campaign – initiated by committed citizens – can cause a government to enact the legislation demanded by its citizens. (And note that in USA, lawyer Ralph Nader wrote the book, “Unsafe At Any Speed”, and successfully campaigned to have the Chevrolet Corvair banished from the roads because it was so heavily involved in motor-car disasters. General Motors – the cars’ designers and builders – lost both credibility and financially as a result.)

Appendix 3 – Political Parties Control Parliamentary Members

It is very rare for a parliamentary representative to “cross the floor” – that is, to vote against the policy of the party that pre-selected them – because such an action usually results in that party member’s expulsion from the party. (And that – almost invariably – would result in that representative losing his or her parliamentary seat at the next election … and, possibly, no longer be able to participate in the very generous superannuation scheme available only to parliamentarians.) Very rarely, the government will allow its parliamentary members a “conscience vote”; that is, it permits its members to vote as their consciences – or as their electors! – dictate … regardless of “party policy”. Such events are few and far between … presumably because political parties want TOTAL control over their members! The great majority of decisions made in the parliament by the government will be those that are in accord with “party policy” … which is almost invariably loudly asserted but rarely argued in a logical manner.

(Note that the assertions – not logically argued reasons – presented by the Howard Government before it legislated to introduce the GST concentrated mainly on:-

Widening the tax base (Does that mean that we should start applying income tax, land tax,  payroll tax and council rates to all religious bodies that have – to date – been exempted from them?);

Making avoidance and evasion more difficult (Nonsense! It’s no problem for me to swap services with my next-door neighbour and pay zero GST! I’ll coach his kids in mathematics if he’ll paint my house!); and

Emphasizing that most other countries already had such a tax (So it’s a good idea to copy those nations that are sliding downhill financially, hey?).

At no time were clear arguments presented in favour of such a tax; even some of the details were not disclosed until after the legislation had been enacted!)

It is thus clear that parliamentary representatives – theoretically, representatives of their electors – are actually representatives of the party that pre-selected them! So although the Australian parliamentary system is always claimed to be democratic, it – quite obviously – has some of the features of a dictatorship!

Appendix 4 – A New Parliamentary System Proposed

With the anticipated demise of political parties, the positions “Prime Minister” or “Premier”, “Opposition Leader”, “Parliamentary Whip” and “Opposition Whip” will disappear!

A Speaker – that is, a person who “umpires” a parliament’s business (I don’t use the word “debate” for reasons that will be familiar to you if you have ever listened to a parliamentary session!) – will still be required but will obviously not – as now – be chosen by the party having a majority of representatives. In fact, the Speaker should simply be a public servant appointed by the relevant public service board. Naturally, the Speaker would have no voting power but would define the content – and sequence – of parliamentary business – based on submissions made by individual parliamentary representatives and/or public service department heads – and conduct that business, imposing penalties when representatives transgress the established rules of parliamentary conduct.

The selection of Ministers would also be greatly changed. Presently, the parliamentary parties select Ministers – and Shadow Ministers – from their parliamentary members, the choice often being based on “party favouritism” or “length of parliamentary service”, regardless of that representative’s expertise in the discipline involved. (So far as I am aware, Paul Keating had no formal education or experience in economics, finance or investment yet was the Treasurer for several years, performing so well (?) that Australians suffered “the recession we had to have”. Later, Peter Costello was similarly placed and performed equally well (?), presiding over a gigantic sell-off of Australia’s assets while permitting the national debt to escalate to “stratospheric” heights. It now exceeds $600,000 million; that is about $30,000 for every Australian citizen!)

In future, the relevant public service board would receive applications from parliamentary representatives wishing to serve in some Ministry and would make appointments based on the applicants’ educational qualifications, experience and references supplied. (As will be readily realized, this is exactly the process that is used when the best appointment is to be made from several applicants. Why should Ministers be chosen differently?) A huge advantage of this system is that intending applicants would be ranked downwards from the best perceived applicant thus there would be a progression of applicants to act as understudies to the highest ranked applicant – who would be appointed the Minister for the term of the parliament – thus there would be knowledgeable “stand-ins” available should the Minister vacate the position either temporarily or permanently.

Finally, without a Prime Minister, ceremonial occasions – within and outside Australia – would be presided over by the Governor-General – or President, should Australia become a Republic – or a parliamentary representative or public service head chosen by them. Similarly, “state” ceremonies would be presided over by the Governor or some senior parliamentarian or public servant chosen by them.

Appendix 5 – Who May Be A Parliamentary Candidate

Again, with the anticipated demise of political parties, there would be no pre-selection of parliamentary candidates as is presently the case. Instead, any natural person who satisfied the criteria enumerated below could register with the relevant electoral commission as a candidate:-

Must have been an Australian citizen for at least twenty years;

Must have lived in the electorate to be contested for at least ten years;

Must not be an undischarged bankrupt;

Must not be the subject of any restraining orders or involved in pending litigation;

Must have acquired signed statements of support from at least one percent (1%) of the voters registered in the electorate to be contested; and

Must have completed – at least to Bachelor Degree level – the qualification known as “Parliamentary Theory and Practice”.

These criteria would virtually guarantee that all candidates were well known and respected in their electorates and that they had mastered at least some of the qualities that a successful parliamentary representative must possess. See Appendix 8. for some ideas concerning the tertiary level qualification nominated above.

Appendix 6 – Appointments To A Public Service Board

The federal Public Service Board members would be appointed by the Governor-General … or the President, should Australia become a republic. Likewise the state public service boards would be appointed by the state governors. Each board must consist of nine natural persons selected according to the following criteria:-

All members must have been Australian citizens for at least twenty years;

No member may be an undischarged bankrupt;

No member may be the subject of a restraining order or involved in pending litigation;

At least two of the members  must be retired public service department heads, each head having had at least five years of service at that level;

At least two of the members must be retired Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of companies whose shares have been continuously traded on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) for at least ten years, each CEO having had at least five years of service at that level;

At least two of the members must be retired heads of human resources departments of companies whose shares have been traded on the ASX for at least ten years, each head having had at least five years of service at that level; and

At least two of the members must be retired directors of companies whose shares have been continuously traded on the ASX for at least ten years, each director having had at least five years of service in that role.

These criteria should ensure that the public service boards so constructed would be populated by some of the most experienced and knowledgeable Australians. Their term of office would be for a period of three years but they would have the right to offer themselves for one further three-year term.

Appendix 7 – Appointments To A Politicians’ Pay Board

As for the federal Public Service Board, the “Parliamentary Representatives Terms of Employment Board” would be appointed by the Governor-General … or the President, should Australia become a republic. (I do not see a reason for duplicating this board in each of the states as the conditions of employment for all parliamentary representatives would be similar if not identical. In fact, surely Australia should be moving towards the elimination of states and territories; two levels of government – federal for all legislation which affects all Australians and local for everything else! – should be sufficient for effective and efficient legislation and administration.) This Board must consist of nine natural persons selected according to the following criteria:-

All members must have been Australian citizens for at least twenty years;

No member may be an undischarged bankrupt;

No member may be the subject of a restraining order or involved in pending litigation;

All members must be retired citizens who have performed some kind of work – either as an employee and/or as an employer – for at least twenty-five years;

At least two of the members must have been the head of a human resources department in an organization that employed at least one hundred full-time staff, each head having had at least five years of service at that level;

At least two of the members must have a tertiary-level qualification;

At least two of the members must have a trade qualification;

At least two of the members must not have been educated to a level higher than VCE … or the equivalent in states and territories other than Victoria; and

At least two of the members must have owned and operated their own business for at least ten years, the business employing – at all times – at least one hundred full-time staff.

These criteria should ensure that the board so constructed would be populated by a very broad range of experienced persons, well able to define terms of employment for all parliamentary representatives who, themselves, may be drawn from a very wide spectrum of citizens. Their term of office would be for a period of three years but they would have the right to offer themselves for one further three-year term.

Appendix 8 – Appointments To A Politicians’ Education Board

The tertiary courses – to be offered by at least one University in Australia, initially at Bachelor degree level and subsequently at a higher level should there be sufficient demand – known as “Parliamentary Theory and Practice”, would be administered by a Course Committee appointed by the University conducting the course(s) and consisting of nine natural persons selected according to the following criteria:-

All members must have been Australian citizens for at least twenty years;

No member may be an undischarged bankrupt;

No member may be the subject of a restraining order or involved in pending litigation;

At least two members must be retired barristers, each barrister having had at least five years of experience in cases dealing with Constitutional Law;

At least two members must be retired parliamentary representatives, each representative having had at least three terms of office;

At least two members must be retired public service department heads, each head having had at least five years of service at that level; and

At least two members must be retired academics – from tertiary level institutions – each academic having had at least ten years of service at a level not below that of senior lecturer and having had at least five years experience as a course leader of a tertiary level course.

These criteria should ensure that the course developed would concentrate on exactly those aspects that will be of the greatest value to those who become parliamentary members. Their term of office would be for a period of three years but they would have the right to offer themselves for one further three-year term.

 

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