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Ministers play the numbers game

Switzerland, which, in the 1890s, many of Australia’s founding fathers admired.

Oh, how things have changed.

Moreover, before the Great War, Swiss governance practices influenced many leading Labor identities.

For instance, one-time WA Labor Premier John Scaddan so admired the institutionalised Swiss democratic practice of Citizen (not politician) Initiated Referenda he attempted to adopt it in 1913, but WA’s conservative-dominated upper house blocked his democratising legislation.

Switzerland’s political system doesn’t permit ministerial proliferation, something Australia’s politicians won’t emulate.

Switzerland, with 7.3 million people, has seven ministers – defence; foreign affairs; interior; justice and police; finance; economics; and environment, traffic, energy and communications. Two of these double as president and vice-president.

WA, with 1.9 million people, has 14 ministers – 17 in the Court Government – double Switzerland but with a third of the population.

Queensland, NSW, and Victoria are worse, each with 19 ministers. Tasmania, with a population below half Perth’s, has 10.

South Australia, with 1.5 million people, has 13 ministers, one fewer than WA.

Despite Premier Gallop’s hullabaloo over trimming his ministry to 14, he has boosted parliamentary secretary (junior ministers) numbers from four to six – up a cool 50 per cent.

Like Switzerland, the Northern Territory (population 198,000) has seven ministers, while the Australian Capital Territory (population 314,000) has four. That’s 108 State and Territory ministers, excluding State junior ministers. If Swiss standards were applied there’d be 56, about half.

Federally, it’s worse.

Prime Minister John Howard, who talks tough about spending restraint, has a 29-member ministry.

True, Australia’s population of 19.5 million more than doubles Switzerland’s, but there are more than four times as many ministers.

It’s true also that Switzerland has 26 cantons with separate administrations, but their ministerial average is seven.

No matter how big or small cantonal or national governments, Swiss governance standards show seven ministers as the optimum, not 14, 19, or 29.

All States except Tasmania and the Territories have double or more.

However, the Howard ministerial proliferation is far worse than his 29-ministers number suggests.

There are also 12 junior ministers, called parliamentary secretaries.

John Howard, therefore, heads 41 senior and junior ministers – nearly six times larger than Switzerland’s cabinet – so has a huge and costly personal patronage entourage.

When it’s added to the 108 State and Territory ministers, not including their junior ministers, that’s an enormous 149 nationwide.

Each of these 149-plus ministers and federal junior ministers has secretaries, personal and other assistants, press secretaries, and advisers, at the head of the expertise of their public servants.

There’s also an inordinate degree of duplication between Federal, State and Territory ministries.

Why the Howard ministry has regional services, territories, local government, heritage, arts, sport, forestry, fisheries, conservation, business, tourism, and training, is rather baffling.

Not only is there a Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training (Brendan Nelson), there’s also a Minister for Science (Senator Peter McGauran).

Another double up is the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (Senator Richard Alston) and the Minister for Arts and Sport (Senator Rod Kemp).

Treasurer Peter Costello has alongside him a Minister for Revenue (Senator Helen Coonan), plus a parliamentary secretary (Senator Ian Campbell).

There’s a Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Warren Truss) and a Minister for Fisheries and Forestry (Senator Ian Macdonald).

So, there’s duplication between Canberra, States and Territories, and duplication within the Howard ministry.

Those resistant to the Swiss example can consider the ACT’s ministerial arrangements.

Admittedly we’re talking of a small territory and population, and a 17-member single legislative assembly.

However, the ACT has just four ministers, so as close to half Switzerland’s ministry as it’s possible to get.

ACT deputy Chief Minister Ted Quinlan is Treasurer, Minister for Economic Development, Business and Tourism, Sport, Racing and Gaming, Police, Emergency Services and Corrections.

However, the ACT is presently reviewing the size of its assembly and ministry.

It’s too early to say if its four-member ministerial line-up will rise to seven, equaling the NT’s – whose population is 30 per cent smaller – and Swizterland’s, whose population is 23 times larger than ACT’s.

But it may, showing again that seven is the optimum.

If each Australian government had just seven ministers we’d have 63, not the current 149. The 86 disparity is too huge to justify on grounds of population and territorial size.

Dr Gallop should immediately show leadership by halving his ministry and enshrining it into law, so future Coalition governments can’t revert to form by having 17 ministers.

Anything over seven is ministerial proliferation.

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