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17 April 2014

Government of the people, by the powerbrokers, for their mates

Ted Mack is credited by Wikipedia as the only person ever to have been elected and re-elected as an independent to local, state and federal government in Australia. While Mayor of North Sydney (1980-88) Mack sold the mayoral car and set out to improve accountability. In 1981 he was elected to the seat of North Sydney in the NSW Legislative Assembly. He served until 1988 retiring days before he would have qualified for a parliamentary pension, as a statement against the excesses of public political office. In 1990 he won the federal seat of North Sydney defeating the Liberal party incumbent. As an independent he opposed the Gulf war, the sale of Qantas and the nuclear industry.

This is an excerpt from a speech he presented in October last year titled The State of the Federation. It's long but worth it. In fact, I would highly recommend reading the whole speech.

In 1992 the former secretary to the Office of Governor-General, Sir David Smith, wrote: There is much that is wrong with the way this nation is governed and administered: never before have we had so many Royal Commissions and other inquiries; never before have we had so many office-holders and other figures in, or facing the prospect of prison; never before have the electors registered their dissatisfaction with the political process by returning so many independent and minor party candidates to Parliament.

In the Mackay Report of July 2001, social researcher Hugh Mackay stated: Australia's contempt for federal politics and its leaders has plumbed new depths. If it (the Mackay Report) was a family newspaper, we would scarcely be able to print the things Australian's are saying about their politicians. In the 22 year history of the Mackay Report political attitudes have never been quite as negative as this.

On 16 June 2013 in The Australian newspaper Tony Fitzgerald QC (who chaired the 1987 Queensland Royal Commission) wrote an article The Body Politic is Rotten. He stated: There are about 800 politicians in Australia's parliaments. According to their assessments of each other, that quite small group includes role models for lying, cheating, deceiving, 'rorting', bullying, rumour-mongering, back-stabbing, slander, 'leaking', 'dog-whistling', nepotism and corruption.

He states in effect, that the dominance of the major parties by little known and unimpressive faction leaders who have effective control of Australia's democracy and destiny, might be tolerable if the major parties acted with integrity but they do not. Their constant battles for power are venal, vicious and vulgar.

Over the last 30 years there has been a plethora of minor and major scandals, misuse of most forms of parliamentary allowances, interstate travel, overseas travel, telephone allowances, comcars, taxis, air charters and stamp allowances in addition to the revelations of major Royal Commissions. It seems that almost anything can and has been rorted. The number of resignations of ministers of state and federal parliaments shows that something is wrong with the selection process or the talent pool. One problem is that the ability to become a cabinet minister has often nothing to do with ability to be a minister.

The 2010-13 Federal Parliament saw the major parties virtually eliminate any real form of democratic debate substituting little but character assassination of opponents. It was a three-year election campaign of personal abuse and fear mongering. It was debased even further with aggressive bullying by the media and special interests at unprecedented levels.

The same period saw both state and federal governments pandering to special interests allowing massive increases in the promotion of gambling and alcohol. Pandering to the development and mining industries and the seemingly endless privatisation of public assets often creating private monopolies, continued irrespective of public opinion.

The last decade has also seen a substantial escalation in the endless commonwealth-state 'turf wars'. This seems to bedevil almost all main areas of government activities such as health, education, transport, agriculture and water policy. This massive overlap of functions results in huge increases in bureaucracy. The expansion of government, particularly the costs of expanding political staff and salaries, seems to be in inverse proportion to the levels of public satisfaction.

Recent increases bring the basic salary of the Prime Minister to $507,000 compared to the American President at $400,000, and the English Prime Minister at 142,000 pounds. Salary packages for MPs have escalated at federal level with steady creation of new positions and extensions of fringe benefits. So much so that only a handful of backbench members of the government receive the lowest salary package. State governments have followed suit.

Salary packages for Federal government members now range from around $325,000 to some $475,000/annum for ministers. However extremely generous superannuation schemes can effectively double that depending on age at retirement. For example, recently retired after nine years in the NSW Upper House, Eric Roozendaal aged 51 receives a pension of $120,000. This is indexed to future politicians' salaries. Given his life expectancy, this works out at around $500,000/year for his nine years of office. Together with his annual salary he was rewarded with almost $1,000,000 for each year in parliament. This is for a job that the officials of political parties can bestow on people with no experience or qualification.

The ten ex-Prime Ministers and Governors-General each averaged around $500,000 a year in public costs for 2010-11 or around $10,000 per week in retirement but the annual appropriation available for the current Governor-Generals' office is approaching $13 million.

Over the last 30 years politicians' staff has increased dramatically. At federal level there are now some 17 hundred personal staff to ministers and members. The states probably account for over two thousand more. Add to this the direct political infiltration of federal-state public services and quangos with hundreds more jobs for the boys and girls, there is now a well-established political class.

This has provided the political parties with a career path for members. In many cases it often produces skilled, partisan, 'whatever it takes' warriors with a richly rewarded life through local state and federal governments to a well-funded retirement. Unfortunately while this career path, as Tony Fitzgerald states, does include principled well-motivated people, it also attracts professional politicians with little or no general life experience and unscrupulous opportunists, unburdened by ethics, who obsessively pursue power, money or both.

Since the 1990s there have been endless calls by federal and state government for increased efficiency, no wage increases unless matched with productivity, for restructuring, downsizing and deregulation all in the name of increased competitiveness and facing the international community in the 21st century. Many thousands of jobs have disappeared particularly those in federal and state bureaucracies at middle and lower incomes and in the general workforce.

Now there is little doubt some restructuring of the country is necessary but it is strange that the political-administrative structure and the legal system are somehow excluded from any need for reform. Given both the massive costs and level of public dissatisfaction. It is surprising that while the media regularly exposes major and minor political misdemeanours, it rarely proposes any serious need for reform let alone suggests possible solutions.

Our many publicly funded schools of Government and Politics also seem to be largely silent on the need for political or constitutional reform with some individual honourable exceptions.

In an effort to increase public confidence in the political system a huge amount of legislation has been passed over recent years to ostensibly promote such things as open government, public participation and reduced reliance on private donations. Effectively the open government legislation has mainly meant freedom from information. Even this year the Labor government and the then opposition quietly combined to sneak through legislation that completely exempted the three government departments that supervise the running of the Federal Parliament from answering Freedom of Information requests.

As for public participation, virtually all government decisions are made in private by small groups of people who are in many cases not in parliament. Public funding of elections was first introduced into NSW in 1981 and federally in 1984 on the basis that it would reduce private donations. Neville Wran presented the Bill and concluded his speech by saying this Bill will remove the risk of parties selling political favours and declares to the world that the great political parties of New South Wales are not up for sale.

Since then an escalating 'arms war' of election spending has developed with public funding steadily increasing and private funding increasing even faster.

The taxpayer cost of federal elections has increased from $38 million in 1984 to $161 million in 2010. Of the latter $53 million was public funding to parties and candidates. Currently, in spite of massive increases, public funding is less than 20 per cent of about $350 million total election spending. We are now effectively the second best democracy money can buy.

There is an overwhelming need to reduce overall election spending. The United States democracy has been largely destroyed by the huge amount of money dedicated to this purpose and Australia is accelerating down the same tollway. Maximum spending limits must be applied to all elections. At present freedom of speech is only effectively available to the rich and those using other people's money. The Electoral Commission should produce booklets setting out candidates' biographies and policies as was done for the 1999 Constitutional Convention elections with all advertising banned.

Political parties as they have developed over the last century seem like two mafia families seeking control of the public purse for distribution to themselves, supporters, the special interests who fund them and for buying votes at the next election. Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. They are effectively unregulated private organisations but they now control government treasuries.

When they unite with common interests, for example funding themselves, the public are mostly powerless except on the rare occasions when public outrage is too great. For example the attempted 60 million dollar virtually secret increase in public funding for the parties earlier this year.

Both parties have rightly suffered huge reductions in membership over the last few years almost in direct proportion to the centralisation of power in their organisations. Public election funding and huge allowances have reduced the party's need for workers for elections. Candidates now can rely on direct mail, general advertising and paid help.

By centralising power as Tony Fitzgerald puts it: The public interest is subordinated to the pursuit of power, party objectives and personal ambitions, sometimes including the corrupt acquisition of financial benefit. Branch stacking has become endemic and as Fitzgerald says 'The parties gift electorates to family connections, malleable party hacks and mediocre apparatchiks'.

The views of people like retired judge Tony Fitzgerald QC, Hugh Mackay, possibly Australia's leading social researcher and Sir David Smith, Official Secretary to five Governor-Generals, should be taken seriously. They have a long and rare experience of government in Australia. Their views are considered and well founded. They demand examination of the many problems of our system of government in order to establish directions for reform.

Today the Constitution is not only obsolete but is an expensive handicap to the wellbeing of Australian society. In essence it was a parochial compromise between the States based on an amalgamation of the British system and the American Constitution. We followed English parliamentary practice but without accepting English traditional restraints. For example in Westminster the Speaker is fair, in Australia fair Speakers are quickly dispensed with. The Government must always win. This is why Question Time in Australia often descends to a schoolboy rabble. We have a system where the opposition almost always loses and has virtually no role in legislation. This forces members to extremes to magnify differences, often reaching levels of mindless partisanship only seen at football matches.

The two-party system of government and opposition where the 'winner-takes-all' has inevitably resulted in mutual denigration with little or no sensible parliamentary debate. Frankly, in Australian parliaments opposition is a form of political death. The thought of it colours all decision-making. It entrenches the philosophy of 'whatever it takes'. It even means less salary for the members of the opposition, shock, horror.

The election of governments by parliamentary members in the absence of fixed terms, means a rigid parliamentary discipline must be enforced to achieve stability. Extreme partisanship takes over and the public interest is irrelevant. Parliament can never be a check on executive government except in rare situations. The domination of parliament by Executive Government effectively means it is an 'elected dictatorship', except in the rare cases of hung parliaments.

The two-party system stifles ideas, debate and decision-making within the parties. The faction system often ensures minority views triumph within both party rooms. In the case of the government, the minority view will then be taken into parliament and become an even greater minority law. Hence the shocking derailing of democratic government in NSW in 2007-11. Voting within parties is often based on what faction members belong to, who wants to become or stay a minister or who wants to be party leader. What the electors think is at best a secondary consideration. Party members almost always follow the party line and are often voting against what they really believe or what their electorates would want.

After 112 years the functions of commonwealth and state governments as well as the financial arrangements are in chaos. It has resulted in endless dispute, waste and inefficiency between state and federal governments and their bureaucracies. A century of debate and confusion over these issues shows that these problems are impossible to resolve without a rewrite of the constitution.

Electing parliaments by voting for single members then have the elected members elect a government is a democratic travesty kept alive by politicians, academia and the press. The single-member electorate system results in only accidental relationship between seats won and the total actual votes. For example, the 2012 election in Queensland produced the bizarre result that the state government won 88 per cent of seats with 49.7 per cent of the vote. The other 50.3 per cent of voters were rewarded with 12 per cent of the seats.

This system also largely eliminates minorities unless their vote is concentrated in particular electorates. That is why such parties as the Australian Democrats and Greens get almost no lower house seats with often twice the vote of the National Party, while the latter generally receives around ten members and three or four ministers and Deputy Prime Minister.

So why do we keep the single-member electorate system, because only the major parties can change it. But why should they? It helps preserve the two-party duopoly. It largely prevents the election of third party candidates. An incumbent lower house federal candidate today has effectively $400,000 worth of facilities and money to ward off challengers. Major parties can transfer a million or so extra dollars from safe seats if they really want to stop an outsider. It also enables the government parties to 'pork barrel' specific seats. It is hardly an equal opportunity for challengers whether they are individuals or new parties.

The Senate is also fundamentally flawed as a democratic organisation. In each election 42.3 per cent of the vote will elect 50 per cent of senators in each state for a start. Then there is the voting system that allows parties to transfer preferences effectively without the voters' knowledge. We now have some five senators with no democratic legitimacy all because the major parties are so venal and are prepared to treat voters as mushrooms to obtain power. It is to Australia's shame that at least 99 per cent of voters at the recent elections had no idea where their Senate vote really went.

The unequal state and arbitrary territory representation is fundamentally undemocratic. It cannot be democratically acceptable to have for example, one Hobart vote to be equal to 14 Tenterfield votes or one Darwin vote worth almost three Bendigo votes when voting on issues that affect all Australians equally.

As things stand Australian democracy consists of voting in a rigged system every few years to elect others to make decisions for us. The voters mostly know little or nothing about most candidates after the 'faceless men' and 'branch stackers' have had their way. We are rarely permitted to have any say on policies. Cabinet ministers, premiers and prime ministers come and go without reference to us. We go to war and sign treaties without even our parliament having a say let alone the public. When the major parties agree, as they do when funding themselves, and their mutual friends, we have no say whatsoever. It is a pretty minimalist democracy and a long way from Abraham Lincoln's Government of the people, BY the people, for the people.

We seem to have achieved, Government of the people, by the powerbrokers, for their mates.

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