As I noted a few months ago, the sudden but praiseworthy switch of John Faulkner to the Defence Ministry has come at the cost of having his experienced hand overseeing changes to the way parliament and MP’s operate. It’s already proving to the detriment of the institution:
H/T Andrew Norton on the new regulations on use of parliamentary expenses by MP’s
As the Senate estimates hearing revealed, these rules have the following implications:
* MPs cannot send out Hansard extracts as Hansard is likely to contain ‘electioneering’ material
* bureaucrats are vetting MPs’ communications prior to sending, and so at least in theory the minister could receive reports frrom the Department on what non-government MPs are saying to their constituents
* ministers are free to keep using their departmental resources for what would be ‘electioneering’ under the parliamentary entitlements rules, further skewing the resource imbalance between government and opposition
The public concern’s are usually in good faith, but this is another instance where the financial crimps we try and apply to our politicians end up actually damaging the democracy we enjoy. The effective freeze on MP’s salaries (save CPI style increases) rob’s us of the best possible parliamentarians. The desire to not be seen as wasting money means the PM’s rightful home, The Lodge in Canberra, remains a cramped, small house, robbing the PM of a good entertaining/power play opportunity in Canberra (just think of the intimidation power of the White House) and meaning our PM’s will increasingly live in Sydney’s Kirribilli instead. And in this highlighted case, proposed changes to satisfy public concern about wasted money (following major rorts in the UK) will deny the opposition and minor parties a significant opportunity to present an alternative message to the Government. All for a pittance compared to the amount we are spending on welfare, defense, and on the economic stimulus. By spending more for better oversight on the government, we will save on wasteful government spending.
It is not celebrated as widely as we do changes like female suffrage, but the decision to pay MP’s is one of the most democratic and important decisions in Australia’s political history. For a tiny cost, we were able to ensure that our MP’s would be drawn from all sections, segments, classes and regions of the country. This fixed structural faults in our democracy of MP’s being limited to those living in the city (for it was too costly to leave the farm regularly), or to those with enough to live without doing paid work (ie the aristocratic or capital owners). The second change not only allowed the poor & middle classes to participate, but in removing the need of MP’s to do paid work whilst also trying to serve the public, significantly reduced a major cause of conflicts of interest.
You get the democracy you are willing to pay for. That’s true of the education we pay to educate our citizens, the amount you put into having elections freely and fairly run, the opportunities you provide to enable all candidates for election to put their message to the public (such as public funding), and in the amount you pay MP’s and the resources you give them to do their job. Ludwig’s proposed changes are sure to be monstered by the Opposition, independents and minor parties (cases like this are exactly why governments shouldn’t have senate control), but inevitably something will go through. Let’s hope the government keep in mind the miserable experience they had in opposition and remember they could be quickly returned there too, when drafting fair laws for conducting parliamentary business.