16/09/2010 - 00:00

Setting a test for Labor government

16/09/2010 - 00:00


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The newly formed federal government needs to be tested on policy scrutiny and accountability.

MANY political commentators look at the minority federal government as an opportunity for improvements in the policy making process in Australia.

The optimistic view is that the Gillard government’s reliance on independent MPs and minor parties will enhance the power of parliament as a decision-making forum.

Treasurer Wayne Swan is championing this cause, arguing in a recent essay that the election outcome provides a “circuit breaker”, a historic opportunity to establish a better policy making process built on transparent debate and consensus.

“We’ll need to better communicate our views and organise a new community consensus behind every policy or we simply won’t get them through,” he wrote last week.

Some of the specific reforms canvassed in recent weeks have encouraged this optimism.

These include proposals to tighten up question time in parliament, returning this forum to what it was originally meant to be. In particular, time limits would be placed on both the questions asked and the answers given, and ministers would be required to actually answer questions, rather than using question time as an excuse to launch into speeches on the topic of their choice.

For these reforms to work, the role of speaker of the house needs to be entrenched as an independent and autonomous position, similar to the established convention in the House of Commons, where for instance the role extends beyond a single term of government and the speaker’s seat is not contested at elections.

Another set of reforms that is arguably even more significant is the strengthening of the parliamentary committee system, so that committees have more power to scrutinise draft legislation and departmental spending.

There have been some memorable occasions over the years, where dogged backbenchers and hard-working shadow ministers have used committee hearings to uncover departmental bungling and ministerial incompetence.

How much more could be achieved if the power and resources of parliamentary committees were beefed up?

These changes are just a taste of the reforms that would enhance the role of parliament, and consequently place a check on the power of the executive arm of government, typified by the ‘gang of four’ that dominated the Rudd government.

They add to the unusual dynamic in the current parliament that requires the Gillard ministry to negotiate support from independents if they want to get legislation through the House of Representatives.

With the Greens due to hold the balance of power in the Senate next year, there will arguably be even more onus on ministers to negotiate parliamentary support.

The optimistic view is that Gillard government ministers will achieve this outcome by engaging in a more transparent and rigorous policy formulation process.

No longer will they be able to present legislation as a fait accompli; at least that is how the argument runs.

The danger is that ministers will negotiate deals with minor parties and independents who have pledged to support a Labor government.

The debate over a national broadband network is a prime illustration. This was one of the biggest issues in the federal election, and the concept has been widely debated.

It’s fair to say there is widespread community support for the idea of high-speed broadband services across Australia.

But is Labor’s $43 billion plan the best way to achieve this outcome? Labor’s NBN has never been subject to a full cost-benefit analysis yet it represents one of the biggest spending commitments for many years.

And how does it compare to the Liberals’ lower-cost alternative?

Where is the detailed scrutiny that would enable all MPs to make an informed decision, and for the community at large to be properly informed?

Instead most of the discussion seems to be occurring directly between ministers and independent MPs like Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.

Similarly, independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie has pet policies, notably controls on gaming machines, and the Greens, represented by Adam Bandt in the lower house, has a highly interventionist policy agenda that the wider community is only just starting to get a better grasp on.

These policies may have merit but, like all proposals, should be subject to careful and open scrutiny, so that the consensus Mr Swan talks about is real.



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