Dubbo Photo News & Dubbo Weekender

Fixing parliament: Here’s 10 easy steps for reform

Politics and politicians are a very easy target. My last article “How to destroy any remaining voter goodwill in one easy lesson” [Dubbo Photo News, August 30] highlighted how the most recent backroom machinations and leadership ambitions ruined any remaining voter goodwill towards politicians. Given the accumulated behaviour of the last 10 years, capped off by the latest leadership coup, the article wrote itself.

Things are no better since the change of leadership a month ago. The ‘traditional’ honeymoon period for a new leader has been plagued by: revelations of bullying and harassment within the ranks of the Coalition towards female parliamentarians; eligibility concerns still hanging over Peter Dutton; federal energy policy spiralling further into chaos; and, the new PM’s cure for drought was to ask people to pray to their deity of choice for rain.

Even the Greens contributed to the malaise of the last month with allegations of sexual misconduct towards female staffers by a former head of the Victorian Greens. Labor’s gloating over the Coalition’s problems wasn’t endearing behaviour either. None of this will restore the public’s faith in the political class.

Never let it be said I am only here to criticise, for this article is about solutions! Here are my 10 easy steps for reforming the federal political system and instilling public confidence in those who govern:

1. Set up a federal Independent Commissions against Corruption – 80 per cent of Australians support the need for a national watchdog to investigate public sector corruption. That the public so strongly supports an entity that has historically been rejected by Canberra is a sure sign of the need for an arms-length body to investigate corruption and recommend criminal proceedings. Whistle-blowers would be legally protected from any repercussions for revealing corrupt activities. Members of the public could be offered observer and consulting positions during hearings, and be able to question alleged offenders and witnesses.

2. Political donations – personal donations should be capped at $1000 and include an Australian tax file number. All non-personal donations should be capped at $10,000 and include a valid ABN. This would hopefully weed out foreign donations. The technology exists for donations to be recorded on a frequently-updated, publicly-accessible database for full transparency.

3. Get rid of Question Time – this ‘backbone’ of the Westminster System is broken and does not serve any function that benefits the public. What politicians call the contest of ideas is nothing more than a contest of ideology, set to amateur theatrics and playground bullying. The ‘Dorothy Dixer’ planted and rehearsed question from a backbencher to a Minister of their own party such as “can the Minster for Bellylint please inform the House of how our policy of funding disreputable private training institutes is working in the National Interest” is timewasting self-aggrandising. Asking a public to be more productive, nimble and efficient whilst continuing the façade of question time is an insult.

4. Introduce electronic voting in parliament – yes, to vote for a division in Parliament in 2018, members get up, leave their seat and congregate in a group on one side of the House whilst a count of heads is carried out. This embarrassing time-wasting spectacle could be easily eliminated by pressing a button on the desk to cast a decision (such as they do in parliaments in the Baltic States). Or, what about a smartphone app, seeing as most backbenchers seem to be on their phone when in the chamber rather than paying attention.

5. Make the Speaker of the House an independent, non-partisan position – The control of Parliamentary procedures and MP behaviour should not be the purview of a person with Party allegiance, as the position requires impartiality and avoidance of conflict of interest.

6. Travel expenses and entitlements – The catch-all phrase of ‘parliamentary business’ gives scope for the rorting of entitlements. It is very easy to determine the validity of MP entitlements and travel. Traveling the country on book promotion tours or attending functions that are for the benefit of the MP’s party are not parliamentary business. An east coast backbencher travelling to Western Australian to attend a sports event is not parliamentary business. An independent arbiter is required to review, approve, and reject travel expense claims, and these expenses posted online to a publicly-accessible database.

7. Don’t appoint ministers – controversial, but consider a ministerial position rewards the MP with a huge pay rise to head a ministerial portfolio they usually have no real-world experience in, and takes them away from their electorate, who they were elected to serve in the first place.

8. Remove the discretionary powers of the immigration minister to grant visas – the current system is ripe for corruption due to cronyism and conflicts of interest. Being a party donor or moving in the orbit of the minister creates an avenue of direct contact not open to the public, and unlevel playing fields create public distrust.

9. Dual citizenship – the issue of citizenship eligibility is easily solved by immigration department inhouse lawyers reviewing every application for prospective parliamentarians, to determine citizenship and/or allegiances to other countries by birth or inheritance. Referral to the High Court for eligibility should not be partisan matter based on numbers in parliament, it should be ICAC/independent process.

10. A ministerial code of conduct – that sets out standards for the basic level of honest, civil and mature behaviour required of elected leaders; and punishments such as suspension without pay for not adhering to the code. This would include formalised processes for dealing with allegations of bullying, sexual harassment, etc. Some may claim this is already in place, but it seems ineffective at best, and ripe for further corruption at worst.

See, sounds easy doesn’t it, but will anything ever change? Political inertia being what it is, highly unlikely. But it’s good to dream isn’t it?

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.