PMs should be allowed a dip into talent pool
This op-ed originally appeared in today's Australian
The Australian Institute of Company Directors ("Bring business into cabinet", The Australian, December 27) has made a welcome entry into the debate about how cabinets should be formed in Australia. Their call for constitutional changes to allow a broader representation in the executive should be seriously debated.
Four years ago I gave an address to the Brisbane Institute titled "The problems of political and parliamentary leadership", and made the point that Australia's parliamentary democracy suffers from an inability to recruit talented men and women directly into cabinet without them having to be elected as MPs.
At first blush this sounds like a rather undemocratic notion, but it isn't. Around the world, even in Westminster, the home of parliamentary democracy, prime ministers can recruit the best talents from outside parliament directly into the ministry simply by appointing them to the House of Lords. And they do precisely that. In the US and many European democracies the president or prime minister appoints the entire cabinet from outside parliament.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, we have to accommodate careerists, former union officials and factional loyalists to make up the ministry. In NSW this parlous state of affairs reached its nadir with the appointment of Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald to Labor cabinets.
This, however, is by no means a uniquely Labor problem, as a new study by the Australian Institute of Company Directors has found. Their report shows that just seven of the present 226 federal MPs have had at least 10 years' experience as senior executives or board members and 55 per cent of the House of Representatives were recruited directly into parliament from political jobs. In other words, our parliament, which is the source of all our ministers, is highly unrepresentative of the wider Australian community.
What this means is that instead of being able to choose from the deepest talent pool to fill the most important jobs in public life, our prime ministers and premiers are confined to those who have been elected. Even then they are forced to make concessions to political bosses in the ultimate choice of cabinet members.
For Labor, this problem of the shallowing of the political gene pool has been exacerbated by factional influences where loyalty rather than talent is rewarded. It is further aided by the fact that unions control 50 per cent of votes at the Labor Party conference. This problem has become more extreme in recent years as these statistics show: in 1971 just 24 per cent of federal Labor MPs came directly from union or political jobs. By 2005 a staggering 67 per cent of Labor MPs had been union officials or political staffers immediately before being elected to parliament.
I believe that this concentration of power and the narrow base from which our politicians are drawn, has a lot to do with the low esteem in which our politicians - on both sides of the aisle - are held today.
We need to examine ways of doing things better. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but in my address to the Brisbane Institute I put forward the suggestion that prime ministers and premiers be allowed to appoint 20 per cent of their ministry - thereby allowing elected MPs the bulk of the positions in the ministry but empowering the leader to appoint a number of talented individuals as ministers. These ministers could undertake most of the roles of MPs and be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, but not vote in the parliament.
Changes of this sort would require a constitutional amendment, as the Australian Institute of Company Directors has stated. This leads me to another important point - it is well over a century since our country's brightest minds came together in a series of constitutional conventions to draft our federal Constitution.
Isn't it time we had a good look at our Constitution again to see where it needs updating, particularly in this area of ministerial appointments and the relationship between the executive and parliament?
Our Constitution is a remarkable document and with the aid of the High Court it has withstood the march of time quite well, but it is not sacrosanct. It was drafted in the 19th century and was in part based on an even more remarkable 18th-century document: the constitution of the US. However, as recent tragic events in Connecticut show, even the American constitution, with its enshrined right to bear arms, is a flawed work in desperate need of updating. We should not fall into the comfortable belief that our Constitution is above thoroughgoing scrutiny and, if necessary, revision.
Let's never surrender to the notion that just because something has been done in a certain way for a century or more then it should always be thus. Our parliament and our ministry are far too important to be allowed to ossify.