Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Federal – States relationship

Dr. Robert Dean’s (Melbourne Age Opinion 2/10) article triggers attention to the constitutional frustration and confusion which exists in Australian politics between the runaway tax (and handout) power of the federal government and the diminishing power of the states, resulting from the takeover of income tax powers by the Commonwealth government during WWII.

This raises serious questions (not to mention angst) about the operation of government under our federal constitution and its changing interpretation by the High Court.

These problems are exacerbated by the party system which took hold soon after federation, with its party leader dominance in the House of Representatives, and lately the Senate, substantially overriding the constitutional powers given to the senators to represent the interests of their states. But most senators are members of the major parties, giving them, at least, dual loyalties.

(I have long believed that the solution to this imbalance lies in the denial of party power in government by requiring the House to settle all debated matters and the appointment of ministers by ballot, with grass roots involvement and independent representation being the result. Failing this, what could be the answer?)

We could take a look at the German constitutional approach!

‘All Bundesrat members … have a twofold role. They hold an office in their federal state, whilst simultaneously holding a federal office, i.e. they are both state politicians and federal politicians. This means that Bundesrat members shoulder comprehensive political responsibility. They cannot overlook the ramifications of their actions at federal level when engaging in their political activities at state level, and in their Land ministries they feel the direct impact of the federal policy they help to shape.’[1]

This looks promising!

It would seem that the balance between the centrist power of our federal government and the states could be advantageously resolved by a constitutional approach similar to that of the German republic.

Many perhaps believe that the states have had their day and should be replaced by regions. This idea may have merit but the regions would still have the same problem. And the answer to a too-powerful central government would still be the same.



Friday, September 14, 2007

Recovering democracy in Australia

Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as Government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people
’What is the best form of government?? That which teaches us to govern ourselves.’ Goethe 1893
Athens was small so, democracy was ‘direct’. i.e. The people could vote on each issue.
Modern democracy must depend on the representatives who receive the most votes from the people.
So is it working well now?
No, it has been corrupted by party politics.

Political Parties
Political parties appeared soon after the birth of the Australian Federation in the early 1900’s.
“The modern party is a device for ensuring that a government formed by that party is not responsible to parliament”. Harry Evans, Clerk of the Senate

Because party government forces us to vote for party candidates in our elections, independents are rare.
Party leaders receive most media attention, initiating the
‘Big-Leader Cult’.
Rule BY the people has been effectively superseded.

The Party system has led to the dominance of the Prime Minister and Executive in parliament. Parliament cannot make decisions. Decisions have already been determined in party-rooms.
Parliamentary debate does not alter decisions, due to executive control and party discipline.
Parliament is virtually a government members’ fiefdom.
The opposition is limited to criticism and obstruction.
A Prime Minister should be ‘first among equals’, but party power creates a virtual dictatorship.
A populist leader’s power, based on ‘handouts’, deletes the power of the people to participate in the decisions.

Powerful minorities, independently of each other, add up to a powerful influence over party government.

A non-party committee is rendered ineffective, as its decisions are at the mercy of party government.

Elections and party politics
Elections constitute the only power the public has to bring party governments to account.
However, party government can delude the public and diminish this power further, by such means as:

  • Secrecy and lies.
  • Allowing concentration of power to media friends.
  • Government funding of political parties.
  • Secrecy of political donations from interested sources.
  • Tax deductibility of political donations
  • Expensive, cynical, pork-barrel campaigns.
  • Government advertising with public money.
  • Election rules favouring political parties, and weakening independents.

What must be done?
To break the party stranglehold over parliament requires a radical change in the way parliament votes.
The key to party government power is the ’party-line’ control of member’s votes.
To restore the power of the people in parliament, through independent representation, party control of voting must be broken.
For this, parliament must be required to decide every debate by secret ballot (electronically), and permanently. We would have a fight on our hands. Obviously, no one willingly surrenders power, especially illicit power. But that is the battle the people must fight to rescue democracy from the cancerous grip of party politics, and its associated interests.

Let the battle begin!
“The voice of the people is the voice of God.” Machiavelli.

Vision for a New Democracy of liberal parliamentary government.
We need good government:

Government OF the people. Strong government, giving good order, harmony and freedom.

Government BY the people. Cooperative government, subject to the intelligent involvement of the people.

Government FOR the people. Caring government, for the wellbeing of all the people.

A new executive
The party executive would need to go, in
a spill of all executive positions, with ministers to be elected by ballot.
Nominations would then be made for all ministries (including the Prime Minister.)
(Members of parliament know well who is best for each ministry, self nomination impressing no one.)
The new ministers would no longer be caught up in party objectives.
The new ministers would be subject to the will of parliament.
The new ministers would be fully responsible for the activities of their departments.
Parliament would censure or replace a failing minister.
Ministers, and members, would be on equal terms in debate.
Responsible ministers would achieve stability of tenure and high standing.
There would be no ministers in the Senate.

A new parliament
Would it work well – for us – with the secret ballot for all decisions?
How would it work?
With conscience voting and all members equal in parliament.
Members would address the Speaker only in debate.
Malice, sarcasm etc. would be unpopular and avoided.

Self-important, time-wasting speeches would achieve no purpose and not be tolerated.
Debate in parliament would be objective and clean, keen and dynamic.
All members, in both houses, would be free to respond to good policy - and delay or reject the rest.
Agenda of parliamentary debates would be publicised, for public discussion
Debates would be televised – live - and in prime time; winning good ratings.

Any member would be able to give leadership on specific matters.
Parliament would make a finance committee responsible for costings.
Progressive electronic ballots would show up the trend in opinion during each debate.
Electronic ballots would enable a speedy resolution of issues.
Doubtful matters would be referred to committees or to members for follow-up with constituents.
Matters causing public anxiety would not be ignored.
Parliament would not waste time.
Lobbies and pressure groups would no have any influence over the decisions of parliament.
Political pressure would give way to legitimate persuasion.

A new bureaucracy
Ministers would have no power to hire ‘advisers’.
Ministers would liaise with and control the bureaucracy.

Secrecy provisions would be amended to eliminate cover-ups.
Responsible whistleblowers would be protected - and rewarded!

New committees
Committees would be non-party, with their findings respected by parliament.
Committees would be open to all members.

A new accountability
A Victorian Liberal MP was once asked: “What would be the effect of secret ballots in parliament.”
His reply was prompt and unequivocal: “It would make MPs accountable!
But if we don’t know how they vote, how would they be accountable to us??
Party MPs would become estranged from their parties.
MPs would then be all independent.

MPs would need to be available to their constituents in regular public meetings.
MPs would be anxious to respond intelligently, and openly, to public opinion.
MPs would have to render account
to the constituents for any unpopular decision of parliament.
Constituents would be at first ‘alarmed’ then very ‘alert, not knowing how the MP votes’.
Constituents would quickly see that their MPs would need their support, establishing useful rapport.
The public meetings would build people power
People would employ their new power to hold their ‘newly dependent MP’ to account.
The previous vague attention of the public would soon dissipate.
A displeased electorate would make any MP’s seat very hot.
Controversy would be to the meetings as honey is to flies.

A new deal for minorities
Powerful minorities would no longer be able to ‘lean’ on a parliament of independents.
The new parliament would not ignore the real needs of minorities.

The new elections
MPs would no longer have any help from parties to win elections.
All candidates would have to compete on their own merits – as independents.

Seats would only be ‘safe’ if members perform well.
Party MPs would give up, or become independents.
A level playing field would result.
Rival candidates would have already earned respect in their member’s local meetings.
Elections would not have party names on ballot papers, nor activists with party tickets.
People would no longer vote for anyone they don’t know.
Rival candidates, if needed, would become apparent in meetings well before elections.
‘Good’ members could be unchallenged, saving unnecessary elections.
Ex MPs could also resurface from frustrated retirement, to play a new and valuable role.

The new media
Media would help even more, with objective and very pointed scrutiny.
Parliamentary debates on TV could attract especially high interest at times.
Digital TV would provide expanded access, creating technical forums to explore difficult matters.

The new democracy
With all members equal in parliament and free to vote by conscience,
The chain of participation and representation would be complete.
Politics would become table conversation, understood, relevant, effective, never boring.
The secret ballot in parliament would be the most significant advance in democratic thought since the Eureka Stockade.
Political stability would soon appear, with harmony and real public confidence in government at all levels.
A new era of orderly and open government would result.

How can we advance democracy: to better help the world cope with the problems of the future?
A Better Democracy, A New Democracy,

A Republic
There is a recurring mention of the Australian public wanting a republic with an elected president.
For many the reason is probably the desire for an authority that could rein in the power of party politicians. If this is the case there is a problem, as the politicians are elected to govern, whereas an elected president would have a certain mandate from the people which would encourage a control analogous to a leash on a dog.
Clearly the more powerful interests in the community would play one off against the other.
We have seen moderate control by the Senate over the House of Representatives but the minorities had to align with the Opposition to effectively oppose the party government.
In the case of an elected president the situation would be vague, rendering the government bemused without really satisfying the public need for assurance that sense would prevail.
In the presence of balloting legislatures any influence over the responsible parliament by an elected president would be excluded. The president would then fill a role similar to that of the Governor General or the Queen of England – a figure of unifying influence to whom the people could respond, but leaving politics to parliament.

Indian Wisdom

"So live your life, that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and nothing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home."
Chief Tecumseh, Shawnee Nation. Printed in Native American News April 9, 1997 issue.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

MP accountability

A New Accountability

A Party MP’s response to the arrival of the secret ballot in parliament.

As a party MP I was identified by party policies, and accountable to the party.

Following the introduction of the secret ballot in parliament, to decide all debates, things will be vastly different in parliament and in my electorate.

In my electorate, I will now have to establish my identity personally, as an independent, on an equal footing with any rivals. I must convene public meetings regularly to ensure intensive consultation with my constituents, to establish the best policies to pursue on behalf of my electorate - and

I will become very well known personally by this intimate contact with my constituents, my motives and integrity (my bona fides), being thoroughly scrutinised.

I will now be able to be active in parliament on behalf of those policies preferred by my electorate. My vote will be private but I will be publicly active to achieve the desired outcomes of the electorate.

My strength will lie in the independence of the rest of the Members, who will be free to respond to the policies that I pursue on behalf of the electorate—conditional only on the intrinsic acceptability of those policies.

I will find the local media very interested in my activity in parliament and in the local meetings. So, between the media and the constituents attending these meetings, I will be under the closest scrutiny.

Should outcomes in parliament appear inconsistent with my public stance and efforts, I will come under considerable pressure to satisfy constituents that I have honestly done the best that is possible for them.

However, a failure to achieve a desired, and justifiable, outcome will not be allowed to be the end of the matter, regardless of the difficulty of pursuing it to a successful conclusion later.

Basically, constituents will expect an unremitting representation on their behalf.

Rivals could well emerge at any time if my performance fails to convince the constituents in the public meetings—a very real, and ongoing accountability.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Quick! Return to Democracy.

Democracy is about cooperation in society, in search of the best answers to the problems. We need to get away from the competitive divisions in politics (parties) each of which thinks they have the best answers. It is quite clear that durable policies need the considered input of the uninvolved thinking community, through a real independence of all representatives.
As we look towards the next Australian election in November there are many challenges.
In particular there is the escalating challenge of the strains of the federal system of government arising in the past from settlement of the states in separate colonies, from Britain.
The federal constitution retained the separate state governments as the price of setting up a national government in 1901.
The situation has become exacerbated because of the takeover of income tax powers from the states in WWII, due to the exigencies of war. Now the states have the jobs to do but the federal government has the money and criticises them for poor performance all the while sitting on a large surplus of tax revenue.
Party politics is a problem as all the states have Labor governments, ideologically opposed to the federal government.
It is obvious that in the context of hospitals that the federal government approach should be that of a 'good parent', with cooperation and responsibility. It seems that Kevin Rudd is more likely to go that way with a policy of 'cooperative federalism'.
There are some who think that the states should be replaced with regions. That may well be in the future. This would be a massive reorganisation of life in each state, but the dispersed regional population areas might well be better off with government closer and more responsive to their problems. (The principle of subsidiarity suggests that government should be always be as close to the areas of service as possible.)
But the problems of federalism, requiring a cooperative approach between the two levels of government would be no different.
Party politics is always likely to make the problems more difficult.
Let's hope for better things. We need good government and so does the world. If we can't learn to resolve these minor problems in a cooperative spirit what point is there in democracy? Or perhaps we haven't even tried it yet!
There can be little hope for a world government to secure peace and justice, if we can't even do it here, can there?
We've a long way to go, and all uphill!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Climate change, Will we be able to win?

Interesting times.
The frantic scrabbling for power - to hold or to get.
I once read that the investment in America is a by-product of a casino.
The national wellbeing is a bit like that too when government is entrusted to the
winner of a power contest.
A very interesting letter in today's Melbourne Age, the first one, pointing out
that AWA contracts are not necessary to give higher wages to individual employees, only to enable employerts to force down wages.
The main point I see here is that business does not flourish without excessive power and conversely labour is not happy without excessive power.
Our democracy has a case to answer, tolerating the cancer of party politics!
Another thing. Politicians seem intent on throwing money about. I see
little coming from government about solid, especially long term, projects to
deal with the real worries.
The ABC 'Difference of Opinion' program on climate change Monday
nightlast was
excellent, a non-partisan attack on the problem.
One item of interest was the AGL Chief's quotation of the difference between gas and
with a carbon ratio of .4 to 1.5. Rather obvious really, as with
gas, hydrogen is the major component - in a 'mixture of gases made up mostly of methane (CH4) plus small amounts of ethane (C2H6), propane (C3H8) and butane (C4H10)'.
The AGL boss says we should use gas until we find other and better answers. Makes sense. Bad luck you coal companies! But being serious, answers to the climate
problem are going to take John Howard's 'tough decisions' - by which he means take no notice of their screams!

However, we have to use our best brains to face big societal changes, to minimise unavoidable trauma. Can the people possibly cope with these changes
if the decisions are not governed, by fair democratic process. Reforming our democracy to eliminate the incubus of party politics becom9ing more essential as the problems multiply.

Chasing up carbon sequestration on the net did not encourage hope for
coal. I got the impression of a frantic effort to find some way to keep
using coal, like digging an 8000 feet hole in America to bury CO2.
Incidentally the website for a Bush major climate change project in 2003 is shut down.
A few stray thoughts! God bless and have a geat day!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Some months frantic tussle over power in Australia

The unconscionable defence of controversial Sydney radio broadcater Alan Jones by Prime Minister John Howard proves once more the aphorism: 'Those you love can do no wrong.'
To say that Jones merely 'articulates the opinions of many' means nothing.
Equally it could be argued that Mufti Hilali is merely doing the same.
A sane and orderly society does not benefit from these loose cannons.
Ours is a politically confrontationist society, the justification apparently being that the best government comes from competition. Neocon rubbish.
The best government comes from consensus, founded in open forum with free sharing of opinions.
Our parliaments do not reflect this objective as the hidden purpose in all debate is the contest for the role of government, with diverse opinions developed in isolation and fiercely promoted, ensuring that bi-partisan consensus is not sought and rarely occurs.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Our Stunted Democracy

Michelle Grattan (Melbourne Age 7/4) deplored the captivity of party politicians
to party policies. Today (Age 10) Natasha Cica responds, upbraiding
Labor for maintaining the members' pledge to abide by Caucus policy.
If then it is so desirable that party members should be free to speak,
and vote according to their best judgement, why do we persist with the
notion that democracy needs parties, to operate in the best interests of
the people (who are routinely excluded between elections, and seduced by
promises in the run up to elections).
Obviously, independents could better represent us, but Michelle opines
that all independents in parliament would mean chaos. Quite wrong - if
all decisions in parliament were to be decided by ballot - electronic of
course. There is nothing so decisive in the affairs of men as the
secret ballot. Why then be afraid of entrusting our representatives to
truly represent us in parliament?
Curiously, the argument of the opposers of the secret ballot for
elections in 1856 in Victoria was precisely the same - 'CHAOS' they cried. They were
proved monumentally wrong.
The world desperately needs the very best democratic representation and
leadership we can have to uncover the very best solutions to our serious
problems, and enable us to move forward without delay, in unity and

Monday, April 09, 2007

A very interesting article by Michelle Grattan

My comments in yellow

The Age April 6, 2007

Too many team players make politics a dull game

KEN Henry is highly respected as Treasury secretary and no political innocent. Having been part of treasurer Paul Keating's inner circle didn't stop his rise under John Howard and Peter Costello.

But now Henry is being used for target practice by ministers and the PM, angry that he's embarrassed them with a private speech to his staff saying the Government's water and climate change policies would have been better if Treasury had been properly consulted over the years. In the (leaked) address, Henry also warned about the hazards of "bad" policies as the election approaches.

Henry has had to grovel, denying the obvious — that he'd been critical. The incident has been all negative for Henry, but there is a public benefit. Home truths (as he sees them) delivered by a top official have emerged into the light. Whether Henry's right or wrong is beside the point — we've got a glimpse of an insider's perspective.

The imperatives of our basically Westminster system require bureaucrats mostly not to speak out independently. But the rules bring costs. Henry's speech reminds how much we don't know about the debates bubbling within official circles.

Secrecy has become more oppressive under John Howard. Once, a good deal used to be in the marketplace about the attitudes of departments, especially those of a feisty Treasury.

During the Fraser and early Hawke years, then-Treasury secretary John Stone frequented the bar of the National Press Club every Friday night with his departmental acolytes (including David Morgan, later of Westpac fame), and was free with his opinions. Officials from other departments went, too, attracted by Stone's presence. Ministers (including treasurer Howard) mightn't have liked Stone holding court but they tolerated it and, while the chat was "off the record", it informed journalists' reporting.

Progressively, things have been closed up. A few public servants take calls from journalists but most are highly nervous. This Government is particularly ferocious in its pursuit of "leaks". It will be interesting to see whether there is a serious witch-hunt this time.

As in much else in politics, it is a matter of balance. Obviously ministers will want confidentiality from their bureaucrats. There are good reasons why, as servants of the government of the day, they're supposed to keep frankness behind closed doors. But equally, when the departments' views are in inaccessible black holes, the public policy dialogue becomes more stunted. The cynics would say that's the way modern governments like it.

Party discipline also often makes hollow the notion of real and robust policy discussion. Again, it's easy to see the need — running a modern government free style would be impossible. Independents often do good work but a parliament of them would be chaos.

Not necessarily so.Adoption of the secret ballot to rule all decisions in parliament would improve parliamentary government - out of site.

And when people vote for a party, they want to know their local member will do what his or her leader is promising, not go off on separate frolics.

And when people vote for a party, they want to know their local member will do what his or her leader is promising, not go off on separate frolics. i.e. They vote for a party leader, not for a real representative.

The other side of the coin, however, is that individuals are forced often into saying what they don't believe, or letting the party do their thinking. Quite.

This is shown by the dilemma of Labor environment spokesman Peter Garrett. Laurie Oakes on Sunday this week asked him, "Can you see why your former supporters think you've sold out? … You've clearly changed your view on forestry policy in a couple of years. You did a backflip on American bases. On uranium, you say you oppose it, but at the end of the month when the party decides extending uranium mining in Australia's OK, then you'll support it … It's a very elastic conscience, isn't it?"

Garrett replied: "I've taken a big step to join the Labor Party, and when I took that step … I accepted that I would be bound by the decisions that the party made."

It was about being a "team player", Garrett said. "It doesn't mean I don't have the care and concern for those issues that I did in the past. It's just that it's expressed in different forums and it sometimes has results which might not always be satisfactory for me but I accept that."

The logic is clear but consider the implications. Garrett argues to the conference Labor should keep its restrictive uranium mining policy, loses, then spruiks the new line or holds his tongue. Why would you bother listening to him on the subject at all post-conference?

Gagged representatives cannot freely represent their people.

Frankly, if this was only Garrett it would not be here nor there. We know his real attitudes and can build in a discount factor when he contradicts them. But thinking across the parties, the implications of people not being able to say what they believe become more serious. How many Liberals think WorkChoices goes too far? What proportion of Labor MPs believes the party should at least consider nuclear power?

The current party player who regularly tries to balance discipline and following his own beliefs is the Nationals' Barnaby Joyce. While he hasn't actually made things excessively difficult for the Coalition, many of his colleagues hate his way of operating.

Discipline is most necessary at cabinet level but it is also clearest there how farcical it can become. Ministers are wall-to-wall around the media; when they are asked about a current topic they often produce not just the same lines but the same phrases, as though they have received a song book from central casting. As, of course, they have.

So the political debate becomes stylised and stultified. All inevitable perhaps. But no wonder ordinary people turn off politics, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and underwhelmed by the often parlous quality.

There is an answer to the cursed bondage of party politics sabotaging our democracy. People, open your eyes and your minds - secret ballot rule in our parliaments will produce:
'Pure' democracy,
Real representation by Independents,
Regular community consultation with the Member,
Ministers appointed by, and responsible to, an authoritative parliament,
A Prime Minister first among equals,
Respected government,
Fewer elections,
Etc etc etc,

And the end of chaos (and frustration) in parliament!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Another the Age didn't want to print

Julie Szego (Melbourne Age 25/1) bemoans the world poll condemning America. Sure,
its not all bad. But the problem with American (and Australian)
democracy is that leaders are allowed to rule the roost unchecked, until
disaster sets in - an acute lack of accountability. (Fancy wanting to
export it!)
Congress could not stop Bush. Can it even now?
With parliaments failing, on behalf of the people, to restrain impetuous
leadership, dissident opinion, also lacking the intellectual restraint
that public face-to-face discussion forums could provide, fires
unchecked its missiles of hate in print or the net.
A democratic nation cannot avoid the repercussions or responsibility for
its actions, and those of its leader. Otherwise our democracy stands
condemned. Just so - and perhaps our much-vaunted democracy needs a
drastic overhaul.

Basil J Smith