Ireland

Queensland’s unicameral parliament limits oversight and scrutiny of government decisions.

Queensland abolished its parliamentary upper house in the 1920s

Queensland abolished its parliamentary upper house in the 1920s

Despite being well intentioned, the abolition of the Queensland Parliament’s upper house has had a negative and lasting effect on public policy and there are important lessons that can be learned from this Australian state’s experience.

In the early 1920s Queensland was in parliamentary turmoil. The recently born Labour Party had established itself as the political majority in the state but its legislation was regularly frustrated by the state’s upper house, the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council’s conservative majority maintained its position courtesy of a process of appointment that saw members serve indefinitely.

Labour attempted to break the impasse by first legislating the Council out of existence and when this failed (the Council unsurprisingly, rejected the Bills), appealed to the public at a referendum, unsuccessfully. Ultimately, the Labour government swamped the Legislative Council with new appointments – the so called ‘suicide squad’ who voted the abolition of the body in 1921.

Queensland’s State Parliament became one of the few in the world to abolish its Upper House and since has operated as a unicameral legislature.

The abolition of the Legislative Council was hailed as a chance for government in Queensland to function as the people wanted – their democratic will could be enacted without the hassle and cost imposed by the state’s house of review.

For a time this was precisely the case. A backlog of legislation became law including the creation of one of the world’s first workers’ compensation schemes. However, since the 1920s the lack of any meaningful parliamentary review of government decisions contributed to a centralisation of government decision-making powers into the hands of an executive that knew its decisions would receive limited parliamentary scrutiny.

In recent decades, this lack of parliamentary oversight combined with the trend in modern-politics for centralisation of power with presidential-style campaigns, political party power structures concentrating power into the hands of the top-tier leadership and a media cycle that reinforces this has seen increasingly poor government decisions made yet receive the Parliament’s stamp of approval.

In Queensland’s case, at its worst, this manifested in 32 years of unbroken rule by a right-wing party supported by a minority of the state’s voters but maintained in power by electoral boundaries endorsed by the unicameral parliament which guaranteed the re-election of the government despite receiving a significantly lower share of the vote than its opponents; bans on peaceful political protests; endemic police and political corruption; and, for three decades, a scandalously underfunded health and education sector. For much of the 1970s and 1980s the state was known as much for its lack of civil liberties and its police and political corruption as it was for its idyllic beaches and sunny weather.

My experience serving in Queensland’s unicameral parliament for three terms was fortunately not during this era but still the shadow a weakened parliament hung over all government decision making and oversight. Queensland’s unicameral parliament simply does not provide for the parliamentary opportunity to scrutinise Ministerial decisions to the degree that should be the case. And neither could does a unicameral parliament’s committee system allow for adequate scrutiny of legislation. Lack of oversight and increasing centralisation of political decision making contributed to a sidelining of diverse voices and ideas.

The government groupthink that takes hold in such circumstances inevitably results in poor policy decisions. In Queensland’s case, the most striking of these involves poor spending decisions that committed the government to billion dollar road construction projects when, for a fraction of the cost, there were public transport solutions. Today, Queenslanders are suffering from a budget crisis, service and public service job cuts, significantly contributed to by poor government spending decisions such as these a decade ago.

Modern Parliaments need more rather than less diversity and more representatives with the time to pursue issues in depth and without the constraints of stifling party discipline. In contemporary parliaments this is a role most easily fulfilled by an upper house – in Ireland’s case, Seanad Éireann.

The notion that the Seanad is beyond repair says more about the administrative capacity of the government to manage this reform than it does about the Seanad. Far too many political problems are caused by decision makers not listening to the community and it is not going to give us better policy outcomes if political leaders have even less requirement to listen to people’s voices.

My experience in the Queensland parliament was that a unicameral parliament cannot deliver the necessary scrutiny of government decisions and I’m a big believer in the importance of a having a house of review in every Parliament.  Queensland’s state parliament is one of the few in history to abolish its upper house – and in public policy terms the experience has been far from positive.

The diaspora does not get a formal say in the Seanad referendum, all we can offer is our advice and experience. In this case my experience says – keep the Seanad, reform it and use it to hold the government to account.

Proportional Representation – why we should support it and why the Greens need to defend it

Ireland uses proportional representation to elect members to Dáil Éireann, the national parliament and has done so for decades without the catastrophe predicted by opponents of PR like The Australian columnist Jenet Albrechtsen (article here) and without complaints like those of my local federal MP Kelvin Thompson who writes in his most recent electorate newsletter about the number of candidates contesting the 2012 Moreland Council elections as “confusing for voters” (you can read the Summer 2012 Wills Report here).

Proportional Representation gives parts of our community unlikely to gain political representation in single-member electorates the chance to play a formal role in our democracy. It means political interests that are single-issue, a little outside the mainstream or have struggled to gain voice within the big political parties can still aspire to be elected to local councils or Parliament.

PR’s opponents have tended to be critical of how this system reduces the threshold of votes required to elect a candidate and it has undoubtedly been good for smaller or newer parties like the Greens to have a chance of election to public office. Without PR it is likely Australia’s political system would more closely resemble that of the US where it is virtually impossible for new political movements to break into the elected political system.

Similarly, PR gives the community the chance to assess the qualities of new parties without the requirement of electing them in single-member electorates. Voters get to make judgements about whether to give them a greater say in future elections as they have with the Greens who now have a Deputy Leader representing a single-member electorate in Melbourne or consign them to the political waste basket as they did with Family First.

PR is an important safety value within our democracy making sure significantly sized and supported minority groups are not alienated from representative politics – it gives them a stake in the system and it removes the temptation to join existing political parties to internally pursue their single-issue agenda.

As MPs go, I have found Kelvin Thomson to be a pretty good local representative and have been delighted with his involvement with issues like the campaign against live animal exports, his interest in environment issues and the positive community role he played following the tragic death of Jill Meagher (giving credit where its deserved – Thomson’s work here was in cooperation with the local State MP Jane Garrett). But I disagree with his views about PR in Moreland Council.

Moreland Council is a fast changing part of Melbourne including the suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg and should actively encourage as many voices as possible to participate in elections. This doesn’t mean sitting Councillors will (or should) be changed but rather it allows more people to seriously participate in the council’s democratic process.

And if there’s anything Moreland Council has needed lately its new and different ideas. True, Moreland does some things very well, its Libraries for instance are excellent as are local parks, but the lengthy closure of the Brunswick swimming pool (it was closed when I moved here last summer and is still a building site) and regular news reports about failures of the Council to reliably separate recycling from other garbage doesn’t convince me the solution lies in limiting the number of candidates who think they might have a chance to be elected to Moreland Council.

And that’s what this change would be about – limiting the numbers of candidates contesting future council elections who believe they have a genuine chance of election and who consequently make a campaigning effort to match. There’s a huge difference for candidates between contesting council wards with four Councillors to be elected and wards who will elect just one – and this can be seen early in such campaigns where many candidates simply realise they have no chance to winning the single position up for grabs and curtail their campaigning, often leaving their issues to similarly quickly recede into the background.

From a party political perspective removing PR from Moreland Council is likely to have a sudden and dramatic influence on the Greens’ ability to gain local council representation. So for that reason at least I would expect the Greens to strongly oppose any such change, just as Labor could be expected to support it.

I’ve written before about Labor’s electoral strategy of chasing the support of Greens voters but this suggestion to change an electoral system goes a step further. It removes political structures that give the Greens a beach-head to build their party. Its smart but tough politics by Labor and could cripple the Greens in the longer-term by denying them local representation and all that comes with that including resources, profile and importantly the ability to train future state and federal candidates. It would also make it more difficult for the Greens to recover from any future electoral downturns which could turn a temporary electoral setback into a more permanent situation.

The Greens, from a party perspective, should be worried about attempts to remove proportional representation from Victoria’s councils but the broader community should be worried about the impact such changes could have on the vibrancy of Victorian local government elections – I see large council electoral fields as a positive sign for our democracy rather than a bothersome confusion.

The electoral commission is considering these matters so you can make comments about this or other aspects of Moreland Council’s elections by visiting the Victorian Electoral commission website here.