During last week, when I lamented the Muppet Show in Canberra, a tweeting critic challenged me to show some gumption and propose a series of reforms to revive Canberra’s standing. “In a tweet?” I queried. My twitter critic persisted: “I have always rated brevity very highly.” Bearing in mind that the most recent Edelman trust index shows a collapse of public trust in Australia’s government, I felt I should give a one-tweet reform agenda a crack.
Here it is. Non-partisan votes in the House on selected issues; strengthened donation laws; a federal integrity commission; curbs on ministers’ ability to sack senior public servants; and restrictions on MPs’ ability to remove their own prime minister.
The proposal for non-partisan votes on selected issues was originally Bob Hawke’s. Large amounts of legislation pass through the House with no acrimony. Since they are not controversial, they attract no media interest and are unknown to the public. Instead, the public sees appalling footage of Question Time, where, as Julie Bishop has observed, the combatants hurl insults and abuse, behaving considerably worse than schoolchildren.
Political parties already provide for conscience votes on matters such as euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research. But on some other policy issues beyond those typically involving a conscience vote, MPs might have more in common across the chamber than within their own parties. Examples are strategies to deal with domestic violence, family law, gambling and drug reform. Providing free votes across the chamber on such vexed issues would recognise that no one political party claims a monopoly on righteousness or on the correct policy responses.
To this day, many supporters of political parties prefer to conceal their donations. Federal political donation laws accommodate them. Political parties only have to disclose payments of more than $13,800. Moreover, there are numerous devices by which political parties can disguise corporate donations. Real-time disclosures of donations would be an improvement, instead of the public having to wait a year before knowing who donated to whom. Various attempts in the Senate at donations reform have failed.
Banning political donations would likely be unconstitutional and is unwarranted. But the Australian people have a right to know who is donating to which parties, enabling them to form their own views about whether and what influence is being purchased.
A federal integrity commission would not uncover endemic corruption in Canberra, since it does not exist on that scale, and existing law-enforcement agencies already have responsibility for dealing with specific instances of unlawful behaviour by politicians and public servants. However, an integrity commission could critique practices such as claims for taxpayer-funded travel and accommodation on the pretext of a token meeting on parliamentary business, privately or overseas-sponsored travel of MPs and public servants, and agreements among the parties to create slush funds for local pork barrelling by incumbent MPs to boost their re-election chances.
Prime ministers have unfettered rights to sack departmental secretaries. They are not even obliged to give a reason. While there will be legitimate reasons for dismissing departmental secretaries, dismissal for no stated reason undermines confidence within the public service about its ability to give fearless and frank advice. Indeed, it can create incentives to obstruct parliamentary and media inquiries into improper or unethical behaviour of ministers. A federal integrity commission could be asked to make recommendations to the parliament on restraining the unfettered power of governments to sack departmental secretaries.
Most topically, restraints on the power of political parties to sack prime ministers could be contemplated. While voters do not elect prime ministers directly, they clearly consider that they – and not MPs and Senators of the governing party – should be able to dismiss a prime minister. Of course, if during a parliamentary term a prime minister demonstrated a profound unfitness for office, dismissal by his or her political party would be justifiable. But to dismiss on the basis of a factional argument or the political ambition of rivals is to undermine public confidence in Canberra. Any restraints could be incorporated in a joint statement tabled and voted upon in the parliament. While it would not have legislative force, such a statement would constrain the capricious removal of prime ministers.
Some of these ideas might not be meritorious upon further and wider reflection, but they constitute one attempt to restore public trust in Canberra. If you have others, they can all start with a tweet.