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Public Sector Informant : PSI - September
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Ask us about rates for group enrolments To find out more, contact us on 02 6247 2225 AN ELEARNING COURSE THAT BUILDS THE WRITING SKILLS OF PROFESSIONALS Pho Pho Ph Pho Pho hto to: to to o: An An An n ndre dre drew T wT w ayl ayll ylor or, Et Et E Et E hos hos hos sCR CRSS S S OUT NOW [SEPTEMBER 2010] 8 THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT [DEMOCRACY:J.R.NETHERCOTE] The House's day in the sun arrives Reforming Parliament The House is ripe for change, but hasty attempts to mimic Westminster will come undone The speaker should not so much be divorced from politics as supported by both sides. It is this bipartisan support which is at the heart of the speaker's authority at Westminster. For more than a generation, Australian governments have wanted to see them- selves as reformers or, less elegantly, reformist. How- ever, one institution, the House of Representatives, has played virtually no part in anyone's visions for reform. The Fraser government was a partial exception, with its various but short-lived committee innovations designed to give the House a more active role in scrutinising public spending. The Hawke government could take credit for establishing the House committee system in 1987, though its apologists rarely do so. Their judgment is not entirely astray. The 1987 changes, which have endured, essentially had their origin in the need, following expan- sion of the House at the 1984 election, for a more extended range of formal activities for backbenchers on the government side; the answer was found in committee chairmanships. But the House has steadily lost ground in a public sense in the post- Menzies years. The often televised question period illustrates not only what many in the public dislike about Parliament, but also what they dislike about politicians and politics. The legislative process in the House is nominal. True debates about either legislation or public issues are virtually non-existent unless associat- ed with confidence or censure resolu- tions featuring two speakers a side. The House committees have a better record than their public repu- tation would suggest. One of their problems is that they must, generally, act discretely if they are to have much effect. Senate committees, by con- trast, need to encourage publicity and media coverage to attract an interest in their ideas and proposals. A great benefit of the present indeterminate state of the 2010 elections is that Australians have been forcibly reminded of the cen- trality of the House in making and unmaking of governments. Earlier in the year, Kevin Rudd, for his part, learnt that, however high and mighty a prime minister may be, the job is held at the pleasure of the party room. The time-honoured phrase ''having the confidence of the House'' is, for now, much more than mere rhetoric whose effect is latent if at all. In the public debate, a viable reform agenda is taking shape. It focuses on: bringing order to question time; prompt answers to questions on notice; and greater parliamentary and less ministerial control of House committees. A key objective of reform advo- cacy is the establishment of a parliamentary budget office. The idea derives from the very successful operations of the Congressional Budget Office in Washington [Ed: see page 10]. First raised in Australia five years ago, in the context of bringing much-needed improvements to estimates hearings of Senate committees, which now have some- thing of the character of trivial pursuits, it was given a powerful push along by Malcolm Turnbull during his time as leader of the opposition. The parliamentary budget office will have wide-ranging responsibili- ties. There will be general tasks of providing Parliament with high qual- ity information and analysis about the economic situation and the state of public spending. Equally signifi- cantly, there will be more specific activities briefing committees for their inquiries and hearings (unless intra-mural jealousies intrude). Its location within the parliamen- tary institution should mean that much of its work will be in the public domain, thereby adding a new dimen- sion to general discussion and debate. When the newly-empowered cross bench in the House -- and this is a matter about which all of its members should all be able to agree -- pursue this development with whoever forms the government, they will need to be clear about what is needed. Reporting directly to the presiding officers, the new body must have its own organisational identity. Though located in Parliament House, it is not just another unit of the Parliamentary Library or some sort of super com- mittee secretariat. It will need to be headed by a person of considerable standing capable of dealing directly, when needed, with such lofty officers of the Commonwealth as the secretaries to Treasury and the Finan- ce Department. And it needs fresh funding: the inevitable pressure to finance it from within existing parlia- mentary appropriations would not be acceptable. There will be much resistance. Apart from argument that the nation cannot afford an innovation of this character, well-tried contentions about how such a Washington- derived body sit ill with our Westminster-style Parliament will get a fresh airing. Such arguments retarded the development of the Australian National Audit Office for decades before the passage of the present audit legislation. Out of courtesy alone, these argu- ments may be given a brief hearing, but no more. The Westminster approach includes a strong parlia- mentary component, not least in
PSI - October