Part-Time Pollies


If you look behind the scandals alleged and actual that have afflicted Australia Governments coast to coast recently, you will find a deeper problem. We simply do not have enough capable people willing to serve in public office.

The most immediate examples of the crisis are Federal Ministers Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile. Their lack of vigilance in the AWB oil-for-food scandal may not constitute a criminal offence, but it highlights incompetence and sloth. ‘We never knew!’ they cry, neglecting to add that they never tried to find out. Willful ignorance, perhaps?

Thanks to Bill Leak

In Queensland, former Minister Merri Rose faces charges of attempting to extort a highly paid public sector job out of Premier Peter Beattie. In Western Australia, ex-Minister Norm Marlborough, and several of his former Cabinet colleagues, are found to be under the influence of the convicted felon and one-time Premier turned business lobbyist Brian Burke.

The man who styled himself as the candidate with ‘sparkle’ for the NSW Premiership, Carl Scully, is forced to quit the Police Ministry after twice misleading Parliament. His former colleague, the recently resigned NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Milton Orkopoulos, faces very serious charges of sex with minors, although they remain untested in a court of law.

In the midst of such despair over our state of governance, however, the recent High Court decision on industrial relations which, in the words of the eminent legal scholar Ron McCallum, renders the States ‘more like municipal governments’ provides an opportunity for a major rethink on two fronts.

Why not start by making State Parliaments part-time legislatures?

I am not an inveterate pollie-basher and, yes, some of my close friends have been politicians and others desperately want to be MPs but it is simply untenable for Australia to have more than 3,000 elected representatives, from Federal Parliament down to local council. There is not enough useful work for them.

It is also inequitable to have State politicians earning the same $116,000 salary as their Federal counterparts when, on average, they represent about half the number of constituents.

For example, according to the Australian Electoral Commission, Justine Elliot, the Federal MP for Richmond on the NSW north coast, represents 86,361 constituents. In the corresponding State electorates of Tweed, Lismore and Ballina, Neville Newell, Thomas George and Don Page each represent, according to the NSW Parliament website, around 42,000 constituents.

It is not demeaning the character of these State MPs to point out that salary should correlate to workload and responsibility. As the Commonwealth takes charge of industrial relations and, increasingly, education and health, their workloads will diminish.

Nor is it simply an issue of pay. Part-time State representatives would be better connected to the concerns of their constituents if they also worked in their day jobs. Many rural MPs have traditionally continued to tend the family farm, so why not also have State representatives continue to run small businesses, staff offices, teach in classrooms or nurse in hospital wards? We could legislate to protect State MPs’ day jobs when they are away on parliamentary service, just as we once protected the jobs of citizens who served on juries or as volunteer fire-fighters.

In many US States, the legislature sits part time. Indeed, in NSW, under the Iemma Government, the Parliament has sat for a mere 50 days this entire year. It will not reconvene until after next March’s State election.

I am not accusing all State MPs of laziness work in the constituency is often demanding. But as the States lose their powers, it is appropriate for citizens to ask how much of their work is really necessary.

The second major reform is to end the culture of political careerism indeed, to end the very idea of a political career itself. Labor, and increasingly the Coalition, suffers from a surfeit of professional politicians who have spent their entire careers working for MPs then assuming the office themselves. Not a good look.

The easiest way to fix the problem and to ensure that we have representatives who are employable outside politics, is to introduce new age requirements and term limits. The law should be changed to ensure that no citizen under the age of 30 is eligible to stand for the House of Representatives or the Senate. The Parties should take it upon themselves to reject candidates who have spent the five years prior to pre-selection working as political staffers, Party officials or full-time union officials (as opposed to shop-floor delegates). These measures would, at the very least, compel aspiring politicians to establish themselves in a profession, trade or other livelihood that reflects more closely the reality and travails of the people they claim to represent.

Federal MPs should also serve for no more than 12 years (or three four-year terms). If by their ninth year in Parliament they have achieved ministerial office, they could serve an additional four years. If by their 16 th year they have achieved the highest office Prime Minister they would be permitted another four-year term. These provisions would allow the Executive to build sufficient expertise.

Twelve to 16 years represents roughly one third of the average working life. Term limits would encourage diversity of background among politicians and ensure that our representatives enter public life for a purpose rather than merely a job.

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