Ten Ways to Make a Better Commonwealth
Rather than relying on the merry-go-round of politics to make a better world, or just complaining about the world as it is, here are ten practical ways that Australia could be better governed in the future. We should demand of our office holders that these changes are made to the Australian body politic.
A Democratic Referee — While the Electoral Commission and High Court have their guardian roles, there is a need for a broader body to revitalise the institution of democracy. By analogy, Treasury routinely tidies up Corporations via the Corporate Law Economic Reform process (CLERP). Democratic change through Referendum is cumbersome and too rarely used. The body could award ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ cards for unsportsmanlike behaviour, and recommend to the GG when parliament should be prorogued or dissolved.
This could be modelled on the French Constitutional Council, by comprising all living ex-Presidents (in our case, ex-PMs), and nine appointed members. Retired High Court judges could be a welcome addition to our formulation. The Council could even take on other functions, like recommending Governors General.
Stronger Bulwarks For Democracy — The above body should start by expanding current prohibitions beyond gerrymandering to regulate modern forms of anti-democratic behaviour such as voter suppression, misuse of parliamentary privilege, misuse of government funds for advertising, untrue political advertising, parallel processes (such as non-compulsory marriage ‘surveys’) and censuring tactics such as wedge politics, hate politics and demeaning officeholders (similar to Scandalising the Court).
No Outside Money or Influence — Money speaks in a Capitalist world, and representatives that are ostensibly accountable to their electorate should not be capable of being bought or swayed through the lobbying process. Politicians are salaried and well compensated, and need not rely on provisions designed around 19th century gentlemen incomes. The requirement for interests to be registered is weak and does not prevent the strong influence by the modern First and Second Estates (High Net Worth Individuals and Corporations & Churches).
Press Diversity — Too much has been made of cross-media ownership rules relaxation, and not enough on diversity of voices that accurately reflects Australia, and keeps democracy fresh. Public broadcasters are needed to ensure Australians are offered a range of views that reflect the public, quality Australian entertainment, education and culture. These need not be not-for-profit, provided their mandate is met. For this, new channels are needed and spectrum could be earmarked for new and diverse offerings rather than being auctioned or allocated. These broadcast outlets should reflect the ways Australians access information — television, radio and internet channels (as well as the humble written word).
Australia has had no new public television broadcasting services since the creation of SBS (1980), our equivalent of the UK’s ITV (1955) to break the ABC / BBC monopoly. Since then the UK government has also launched Channel 4 (1982) with a remit for culture, entertainment and education, Channel 5 (1997) with a remit for high quality and diverse programming and has recently (2011) announced new local channels to be created ‘from the ground up’.
Further, a large part of content creation in the UK is funded from the lotteries, which has a mandate to distribute profits towards the arts and culture, providing a politically-independent and rich source of funding for culture.
Lower the Voting Age to Sixteen — Traditionally the concern with a younger voting population has been a perceived lack of experience and decision making skills. This does not accord with our expectations of sixteen year olds as being old enough to make informed decisions about sex, safety (say, driving a vehicle), or criminality. More importantly, Australia has an ageing population, and mental inflexibility is a known byproduct of ageing. A fresh voter base is a good counterfoil to an increasingly mentally rigid existing pool, and ensuring that — since we believe in compulsory voting — as many Australians’ voices are heard in the ballot box as possible.
Rethink the Senate — The senate as a house of equal States’ representation no longer functions as a balance of power, and states champion their interests through COAG instead. Proportional representation and voter behaviour provide a balance to the HoR, but irregularly, often by accident. A city and regional system (see below) could be bolstered by assigning the 12 senate seats per state to 6 cities and regions per state (2 representatives per region).
Better yet, we could devise a whole new method of balancing out population based electorates, such as portfolio-based electorates (eg: six Environment Senators, six Economy senators, six Foreign Relations senators and so forth).
Portfolios could also be based on groups of the Exclusive Powers in s51 of the Constitution eg Revenue and Customs (ii tax, iii export duties, iv borrowing), or Banking (xii coinage, xiii banking and xiv insurance) — but this would privilege some obscure powers, eg post and railways, over modern concerns of Australians.
Overseas Electorates — Other countries, like France and Italy, have broadened their electoral process to embrace all citizens, wherever they live in the world. Expats as a cohort would bring diverse experience from outside the Australian ‘bubble’, making parliament more agile and worldly. We should seek to engage these expats, and not just dissipate their votes in their last registered local electorate.
There are now enough Australians living overseas to fill over seven Federal HoR seats — the equivalent of 3 electorates in the UK, 1.5 in the rest of the Commonwealth, 1.5 electorates in the USA, 1 electorate in Greece and 0.5 electorates in the rest of the world.
City and Region Governments — Cities are the engine rooms of modern knowledge economies, and yet there is no engagement, official or otherwise, with city governments, let alone rolling funding for their infrastructure. With Australia more urbanised than ever, relying on state governments conflates city and state, risking poor city governance on the one hand, or neglect of the non-city regions on the other. Food bowls on the edges of cities, and major river systems across state borders are often crucial natural catchments that could be bolstered by recognition and representation.
A Legislative Agenda — In the UK, there is an annual Queen’s Speech which sets out the legislative agenda for the year, distinct from Budget statements. It is a statement of what is important to parliament and allows long term debate before decisions are made. In a similar fashion, the US ‘State of the Union’ provides a single point of reference of the important issues facing the country as a whole in that year. This process could be adopted in Australia as an annual legislative agenda, which could be envisaged in election manifestos, rather than relying on small print or the rubbery concept of a ‘mandate’.
Debate and Recall Powers — Intimately tied to a legislative agenda should be the ability for the public to comment on that agenda, including objecting to parts it disagrees with. Voices are too often heard once in four years on one issue, ‘through a ballot box dimly’. In the UK, petitions of over 10,000 citizens have a right to response from the UK government, and petitions over 100,000 citizens get debated in parliament. Likewise, the UK has recently adopted a (weak) recall power giving citizens the ability to recall their member if they go astray — this could be much stronger, holding to account a representative to their electorate’s wishes, not just their whim or the will of the party they represent.