The political system needs a makeover from the ground up.
Power without restraint is dangerous. That is why liberal democracy stresses the rights of the people, the importance of the separation of powers, the rule of law, representation, and having to account to the people.
It’s also why liberal democracies stress the importance of parliaments as a necessary safeguard, separate from and at times opposed to governments.
Those who serve on scrutiny committees need to have a good sense of history.
History tells us that the one arm of government most feared for its actions has been the executive – whether tribal, monarchic, theocratic, dictatorial, or parliamentary.
Beware a system or a parliament that raises the executive above all else, and diminishes the checks and balances explicit in the separation of powers doctrine.
Accountability is weak where parliaments are weak, and where parliamentarians are weak.
Parliament is inferior to the executive in its resources. If power is best challenged by countervailing power, what more can be done to lend parliamentarians a hand?
I have a few propositions for you: parliament should be in control of its own budget; parliament should be better serviced; and parliamentarians’ standards and training need to be lifted.
That parliament should be in control of its own budget helps advance the separation of powers. Democracies are wary of a concentration of power and the abuse of power. Democracies try to promote accountability and protect citizens from the might of the state.
Democracies try to keep separate: the parliament’s power to make laws and to tax; from the executive’s power to propose laws and to spend the revenue; from the bureaucracy’s power to administer laws and programs; and from the judiciary’s power to determine disputes according to law.
Each of these is meant to act as a check and balance on the other, but if the executive holds the financial and resources whip hand, then there is an imbalance of power.
Parliament’s duty is to decide on the executive’s proposed spending and policies. It does not set the budget because it is separate from the executive. The executive does not extend that same principle to the parliament’s budget.
Supporters of a genuine separation of powers argue that a strong, well-resourced, properly funded, independently minded and fully effective parliament needs financial independence.
Four keys to parliamentary financial independence are:
• an independent body setting parliamentarians’ remuneration and entitlements;
• independent budget formulation by a parliamentary body;
• the executive’s right to criticise parliament’s budget; and
• annual independent financial and performance audits of parliament’s expenditure.
• Better serviced
Parliament’s power to tax and spend is arguably its most important power. Most important is understanding money – how money is raised, how it is spent and by whom, how it is accounted for, how justified and how reported.
There are four ways in which parliament can be better served on money matters on a non-partisan basis, by:
• insisting on clear consistent budget and financial reporting;
• providing the authority and resources to the parliamentary library and/or parliamentary committees, to provide independent quality real-time fiscal briefs;
• introducing a parliamentary budget office to provide independent quality research analysis and advice to parliament on fiscal matters; and
• making the auditor-general an independent officer of the parliament.
One way to improve matters is to give parliamentary libraries, or the specialist parliamentary fiscal committees, the resources and authority to analyse and react in real-time to relevant government financial reporting, by providing committee members with pertinent briefs. Members of those secretariats should include persons with accounting or finance skills.
Another vital accountability mechanism is a parliamentary budget office, responsible to and funded by the parliament. A body is needed that provides independent quality research analysis and advice to parliament on fiscal matters.
• Lifting standards
The quality of parliamentarians presently in office is what it is, as delivered by the parties and the electorate. Nothing can be done about that, but something can be done about those who serve those parliamentarians.
If those elected have weaknesses in life and work experience, ability and skills, they need to be serviced by staff that has those missing qualities.
How do you get better quality parliamentarians in future?
• Political remuneration
The proposition is simple – making politics a more attractive occupation will assist in attracting more quality candidates for elections.
In part, that requires attending to the salary package and entitlements of parliamentarians.
Salaries and working conditions must be attractive enough to help encourage quality candidates to take up public office.
The prime minister’s salary is far too low for the responsibilities of the office. The consequence is a knock-on effect of compressing the salaries of those holding executive office, of those holding parliamentary office, and parliamentarians generally.
Salaries and working conditions must encourage parliamentary careers, not just reward executive careers.
• Political governance
Low standards in political governance put off many potential candidates, and is an issue at a time when much more is expected of parliamentarians. Improved political governance will over time lift the overall calibre of the political class by requiring greater professionalism, better pre-selection recruitment and training, a sustainable career path for professional parliamentarians as well as those who aspire to an executive ministerial career, and by reducing the opportunity for patronage, sinecures and dynastic factionalism.
The training our elected representatives get before resuming full duties is perfunctory, haphazard and limited.
One of the reasons parliamentarians struggle to make headway is the lack of professional development.
If parliamentarians are poorly trained, poorly staffed, poorly serviced and not aided by independent researchers and advice in the form of libraries or budget offices, their ability to understand complex financial matters is severely constrained.
• This is an edited version of a paper former Democrats senator Andrew Murray delivered to the Australasian Council of Public Accounts Committees Conference in Perth last month.