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  • Writer's pictureMike Lyons

A PLAN TO REFORM THE AUSTRALIAN SYSTEM OF GOVERNANCE


A Short History

 

The Australian constitution was drafted during the 1890s by a group representing the Colonies which then became the six Australian States. The Constitution took effect on 1 January 1901ensuring that each State, with its own constitution and law-making powers would be retained in a federal structure. It was a grand compromise, preserving the authority and separateness of the Colonies. It is a historical anachronism. Colonial compromises which worked in 1901 are hardly relevant today.


Abolition of the States


In 1979, before becoming Prime Minister, Bob Hawke made the observation that “We must surely be the most over-governed country in the world”. 124 years after Federation, Australia has changed beyond recognition. We live in a digital age, an age of high-speed travel and instant communication.


How different were the times when Hawke spoke. Deng Xiaoping became the leader of China in 1978 bringing far-reaching reforms. The Berlin wall came down in November 1991. The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. Vladimir Putin became president of Russia in May 2000. 9/11 occurred in 2001 bringing down the World Trade Centre in New York. The US coalition under George W Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. The Global Financial Crisis occurred in 2007/2008. Xi Jinping came to power in China in 2012. Donald Trump was elected president of USA in November 2016. Covid-19 raged across the globe in 2020. Joe Biden was elected US President in November 2020. In Australia, the Morrison government was voted out and replaced by the Albanese government in 2022.

 

Australian Governance Now


What does Australian governance look like today? There are 151 members in the Australian House of Representatives and 76 senators in the Senate. There is a total of 405 members in the legislative assemblies of the six States and 155 members in the legislative Councils (Senates) of five of the States. Queensland abolished its Senate in 1922 as did New Zealand in 1950. There are 25 members in the legislative assembly of each of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.

 

Between the Federal government, the States and the Territories, there are 837 individuals “governing” the nation of 26 million people.


It is estimated that the annual cost to Australia of the existing federal structure amounts to between $40 and $50 billion every year. This money could instead be deployed year after year in providing improved education, health services, pensions, housing, infrastructure, reducing budget deficits, and more.


The multiplicity of Australian governments involves enormously inefficient duplication of laws, including laws governing families, property, succession, education, roads, health and business. The laws which apply in each of the States and Territories are all similar with only minor, mostly irrelevant differences, but they play havoc, for example, when dealing with national cross border transactions, disputes, or crises such as Covid-19. There are nine separate parliaments plus the six separate Senates, requiring bureaucratic structures to support each of these legislative bodies. It is surely time to abandon the States and to move forward. Notably, none of New Zealand, South Africa or England have second tier State governments.


The Senate


The Senate was part of the compromise reached at the time of Federation. It was intended to ensure representation for the smaller States. Each State, irrespective of its population size, has 12 Senators (each Territory has two Senators), giving the smaller States disproportionate representation. Tasmania with a population in 2020 of about 540,000 has 12 Senators, and New South Wales with a population in 2020 exceeding 8 million also has 12 Senators.


The Australian Senate (which derives from the English House of Lords, going back 700 years) can block legislation and impede decision-making by the government. However, the power of the English House of Lords to reject bills has been severely restricted, but there is no such restriction in Australia. Today, Australia is one of only four countries (including US, Switzerland, and Germany) where the upper house can veto legislation from the lower house.


The Senate is outdated and expensive. It is difficult to justify a second parliamentary body which reviews and second guesses legislation proposed by a democratically elected House. The Australian Senate should be abolished.  By removing the Senate, Australia would have a Unicameral Parliament with a single chamber - the Australian House of Representatives.


Removal of the States, the Territories and the Senates would release more than 680 serving members, many with excellent experience and credentials. A major benefit would be the huge increase in the pool of potential candidates who could be available for election to the Australian House of Representatives.

 

Term of Government

 

At present, a federal election must be held every three years, with the government having the discretion to shorten the term by bringing forward the date for an election. A three-year term is too short and places too great a demand on the voting public. It is an unnecessary expense and forces short-term thinking and short-term planning. A fixed five-year term is proposed.


Local Councils


After the removal of States and Territories, Australia would have only two tiers of government, a central Parliament and local Councils. Councils should then be able to consolidate where this is supported by their local voters.

 

Overcoming Major Obstacles to Reform


Politicians, academics, and commentators have written and spoken, over many years about reform, but no meaningful action has yet been taken to bring this about. The challenges are formidable. There are at least two major obstacles:

 

  1. Section 128 of the Constitution requires, not only a majority of the electorate to vote in favour of the change but also requires a majority vote in a majority of the States. It is not only a referendum but a “Double Majority”. There are good reasons to ensure the stability of the Nation’s Constitution, but the present restrictions are excessive and counterproductive. Surely a two third majority in a Unicameral Parliament would suffice without the need for a referendum (although that need not prevent the Parliament from calling for a referendum in appropriate circumstances).

  2. Self-interest. Here the question of vested self-interest calls for serious consideration. Without the fulsome support of the nation’s politicians at all levels of government and from all strands of political persuasion, it would be virtually impossible to secure support from the voting public to achieve the required double majority.

 

A Compensation Scheme


Most Australian politicians are hardworking, committed and dedicated to serving the interests of the Australian people. More than 680, roughly 80% of those currently serving would lose their careers by supporting these proposals. Not only would they forego a career, but they would also forgo the incomes upon which they and their families depend. Retirement benefits might also be lost. Reluctance to support such an outcome can hardly be regarded as selfish.


A financial solution is indispensable. The savings to the nation of implementing these proposals would be of the order of between $40 and $50 billion per annum. Let’s say $45 billion per annum. A generous redundancy/compensation scheme is needed. Our politicians serve at different levels and in different capacities. The amount of compensation would vary from person to person. 

 

A failure to achieve a successful outcome would hold the country back for generations to come. It is impossible, in this paper to make a dollar recommendation. However, if we assume a generous average lump sum package for 680 individuals of say, $4 million each, the aggregate cost would be about $2.72 billion, or 6.0% of one year’s $45 billion annual savings. Thereafter the full amount would be saved every year. This would be a small price to pay if regard is had, not only to the ongoing annual savings in purely financial terms, but also to the overall efficiency and qualitative benefits which would flow permanently to the Australian people.


Conclusion


This is a plan for sweeping reforms of the Australian democratic system of government, including:

 

  1. Streamlining the Nation’s governance and legislative processes;

  2. A Unicameral Parliament with a single legislative chamber;

  3. Abolishing the Senate;

  4. Removal of Australia’s second tier of government;

  5. Increasing the period between elections from three to five years;

  6. Multi-billion-dollar annual savings; and

  7. Significantly expanding and enhancing the pool of talent potentially available to serve in the Australian Parliament.


“AUDI ALTERAM PARTEM” – HEAR THE OTHER SIDE!

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