Imagine if you will that the final report of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry was presented to the Australian Banks and financial services industry rather than the government, and it was then left up to the industry and industry players to design and implement the recommendations. Would it not present a problem, a conflict of interest, to task those whose behaviour was adversely highlighted to decide which recommendations to implement and how.
If it is a conflict to ask the banks to write the rules around their governance, incentives and behaviours, why is it not an equivalent problem to permit our political representatives to do the same thing when the misbehaviour is theirs?
There have been repeated failures in parliamentary remuneration, expenses, decision making, culture and governance, yet it is left to the parliament and parliamentarians to police and regulate themselves. Self-regulation some might call it. Parliamentarians are quick to jump when it comes to regulating the conduct of businesses and citizens. Sadly not so quick when it comes to regulating their conduct.
How many times have questionable uses and abuses of Parliamentary entitlements been responded to with “it is within the rules”, this notwithstanding the parliamentarians writing the rules? How many times have retired minsters and senior public servants moved quickly into roles where they have prior direct and confidential knowledge. Perhaps there is some superior morality and judgement within the parliamentary and bureaucratic class that protects them from normal human failures and biases. Perhaps not.
Unlike parliaments regulating business, to change the rules around culture and remuneration of parliamentarians not only requires the consent of parliamentarians, but it also requires their active co-operation and participation to write laws that may adversely impact them. And at the Commonwealth level, to change the constitution to limit the powers of government first requires an act of parliament to put a resolution to the people.
It may be difficult to get the necessary majority of votes in a majority of states to change the constitution via referendum, but it would likely be much, much harder to get the parliament to pass the necessary legislation to constrain itself – its conduct, its powers, its remuneration, its perquisites.
It is all well and good for parliamentarian to claim that their ultimate accountability is through elections, but it seems that there is a unity ticket on preventing changes to parliamentary culture, remuneration and governance. And given the size and scope of Australian Government, anywhere between 35 and 45 percent of GDP depending on how it is counted, poorly behaving government has much greater impact than a poorly behaving financial sector. From bad decisions taken to decisions delayed or not taken at all. From laws influenced by rent seeking insiders to laws that should have never been passed in the first place. From eroded confidence in democratic institutions to unconstrained regulatory expansions.
Given now is the season of the Royal Commission, banks, pink batts, aged care and the disabled, perhaps a Royal Commission into the design and operation of government is worth considering; including consideration of the third rail of Australian politics, Commonwealth-State-Relations. And rather than the recommendations of such a Royal Commission into Government design and conduct being presented to Government, how about they be automatically put to a referendum, thus bypassing the vested interest buffet.
One such reform to be considered would be a significant expansion in the number of members of the lower house and a significant reduction in the number of senators.
A little known fact about the US Constitution is that the draft US bill of rights put to the US congress (after the ratification of the US Constitution) actually had 12 proposed amendments; and the original intended first amendment was not related to freedom of speech and religion and the original second intended amendment was not related to the right to bear arms.
Had they been ratified, the first amendment to the US constitution was about diluting the power of the congress and the second amendment was about the management of the remuneration of parliamentarians.
The unratified first amendment to the constitution was:
After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.
Were this amendment in place today, the US Congress would have 6,000 members not the current 435. Were such a provision in place in Australia, the House of Representatives would have 500 members rather than the current 151.
The additional members would allow for greater diversity of opinion and talent and importantly could dilute the power of vested interests and political parties.
In Australia, such a reform could be easily accommodated and financed by eliminating the cabal of staff that members and back benchers have (including chiefs of staff, media minders, electorate officers, drivers). Efficiencies could also be achieved by mandating video parliaments. Hey. Was not one of the cases for the NBN to allow medical and education services to be provided via the internet. Well, let parliament operate the same way with constituents sitting with members in their constituencies while debates and votes take place.
Citizen initiated referenda. Recall elections. Balanced budget amendments. Commonwealth-State relations. Election by sortition. Citizen juries. The list of tools available to improve government and to return power from the governors to the governed is endless. But unfortunately requires the prior consent of the governors.
Ultimately if referendum questions are poor, then the people will be left to decide without the need for the prior review and veto of vested interest political parties.