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.

Bicycle helmets save lives and should be mandatory

Today I was reading a book about 1980s cycling in Europe and it struck me how strange it seemed that so few of the cyclists were wearing helmets.

Actually, none of the cyclists were wearing helmets, save for a few with those leather strip head covers that I remember as hopelessly uncomfortable and utterly unsafe. But it also seemed strange to me how many photos there were of racing cyclists with blood streaming from their heads after crashes. This isn’t something you see as frequently nowadays as helmets are a mandatory part of cycling and cycle racing.

There is no doubt in my mind helmets are a huge safety aid and have protected many people, me included on many occasions, from far more serious injuries in accidents than would otherwise be the case.

Mandatory helmet laws are to me, like seat belt laws – they might be bothersome to some but they save lives. More people are alive today because they were wearing helmets while falling/being knocked off bicycles.

And I want mandatory bicycle helmet laws to stay.

That’s why I am a little concerned to see in this week’s The Age a report about the beginnings of a campaign to remove the requirement for cyclists to wear helmets while riding their bicycles. The Age story is here.

Many cyclists will sacrifice comfort to look and feel good while riding and there’s really nothing wrong with striving to look good while pedaling about the place. But this should not go so far as to compromise safely as will happen if folk start riding helmet-less. Please let me know your views – leeronan@hotmail.com but remember its the law to wear a helmet while riding your bike so please do!

Our thoughts are with Jill Meagher and her family

Jill’s husband Tom Meagher. Photo from Herald Sun.

Very sad news about the Jill Meagher missing persons case. It is a tragedy and our thoughts are with Jill and her family.

The news.com.au report is here.

Please make note of the statements today by Jill’s husband Tom and also Victoria Police that care should be taken when making social media posts about this case to ensure the outcome of a future trial is not compromised. Victoria Police statement is here.

Also, here is an ABC news report including tributes to Jill from co-workers.

A very sad day indeed.

Jill Meagher’s Brunswick disappearance – can you help identify these people?

Police have just released this clip showing people they believe can help with their investigation into the disappearance of Jill Meagher in Brunswick on Friday.

Here’s the link: http://media.theage.com.au/news/national-news/jill-meagher-cctv-footage-released-3665840.html

Also there are more photos at news.com.au here.

If you can help identify these people please immediately call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

Its a nice thought but Labor is not going to soft pedal on the Greens

Today I read two articles arguing why Labor should not vigorously campaign to take votes from the Greens as we approach the federal election instead allowing both parties to focus attention on tackling the conservatives.

You can read the article by Dennis Altman here and by Nicholas Barry here.

I’m not getting into whether the suggestions by Altman or Barry are worthwhile aspirations instead I want to address their key points in our current political climate – and I just don’t buy the core political arguments being made.

The first broad argument is laying off the Greens can deliver a better preference deal for Labor; the second argument, Labor should see the Greens as kindred-spirits and work more cooperatively to maximise the non-conservative vote.

Both suggestions would have been useful to the Greens and Labor at last federal election but the current political climate is very different.

The preference argument doesn’t stack up for me because Labor is in the box seat where Greens preferences are concerned. Federally, voters must indicate a preference and I just don’t see how the Greens could or would, in the current political climate, encourage their supporters to preference Liberal. This leaves the question of the Senate and I think here, based on recent polling trends, it will be the Greens most in need of Labor preferences. I’m not convinced Labor could easily be convinced to back off attempts to retake votes from the Greens in this climate – there just isn’t enough in it for them.

The higher your vote the better position your party will be in to negotiate a preference deal. Labor will simply campaign hard, taking as many votes from the Greens as possible and only then make a final decision about preferences.

The second argument is Labor should work more cooperatively with the Greens to maximise the non-conservative vote. Since Labor has already devised a strategy to begin retaking many of the votes they have lost to the Greens over the last three election cycles its hard to see why Labor would now see any political benefit for themselves in soft pedaling on the Greens.

It is time the Greens realised Labor is unlikely to do them any favours prior to the federal poll – you can argue all you want about whether it is in the long-term interests of both parties but the fact is Labor is going to be interested only in their own political health. And if you listen to Labor figures like Paul Howes the Greens could well be the focus of a good deal of Labor’s attacks.

This means the Greens need to work out why their vote is softening, realise Labor will not be doing them any favours and start thinking seriously about where the preferences needed to retain senate seats are likely to come from.

‘Waste’ – the global food waste scandal

'Waste'This new book ‘Waste’ is about the inefficient use of food and how as our planet reaches the limits of its productive capacity we will need to seriously think about why we accept such food waste.

The author Tristram Stuart explains how with nearly one billion people hungry, the world has a food problem – or maybe just thinks it does. There are good arguments here and some ideas that can really help feed our planet.

You can listen to an interesting TED talk by Tristram here (also below) and buy his new book here

Cambodia and the failure to prosecute Khmer Rouge genocidal monsters

Khmer Rouge victims' skulls

Khmer Rouge victims’ skulls

Cambodia is a country cursed by its history but it seems determined to keep itself mired in government corruption and a failure to prosecute, let alone punish, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime.

I’ve written before about the dreadful situation in Cambodia and recommended people interested in the subject read Joel Brikley’s book ‘Cambodia’s Curse’ but the recent news the UN tribunal (part Australian government funded) designed to prosecute only the Khmer Rouge’s senior figures will not proceed further with the trial of Ieng Thirith is appalling.

Thirith, the sister-in-law of Pol Pot and the regime’s minister for social affairs is accused of crimes that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people but is too ill for the trial to continue.

This leaves just three Khmer Rouge figures facing trial – KR head of state Khieu Samphan, KR foreign minister and Nuon Chea, the KR chief ideologist known as ‘Brother Number 2’. The tribunal has managed just one verdict, to imprison the head of the infamous Tuol Sleng torture centre and prison in Phnom Penh, Kaing Guek Eav known as ‘Duch’.

This is an appalling outcome for a tribunal designed to give the victims of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous communist ideology some justice and allow the country to begin a process of rebirth so Cambodia’s people can more on from their tragic history.
Sadly the tribunal has been subject to much of the same incompetence and corruption seen throughout much of Cambodia’s government apparatus and the consequences are obvious – despite being responsible for the brutal murder of close to one quarter of the population of Cambodia, close to 2 million people – decades after these monsters have been removed from power there has been just one judicial verdict. Its enough to make you sick.

And Australia’s government, who is part-funding this charade should be asking serious questions about how this UN endorsed tribunal can be working so slowly that it appears to be almost trying NOT to reach verdicts until the accused are so old or frail that their trials must be stopped.

Remember, all the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial are in their 80s. This is very old by Cambodian standards but let’s face it, they all had access to better food and healthcare than just about every other Cambodian during the country’s worst times. And these evil people were the one’s pointing the guns and creating the twisted ideology.

You can read the details of the tribunal’s decision to release the Khmer Rouge’s ‘first lady’ in The Age here but you will probably wish you hadn’t.

What global water shortages could mean for our planet’s diet

You can read my article titled ‘Water shortages will mean our planet needs a non-meat diet’ by visiting Green Earth Group here. The article explains what this rather complicated but very useful graphic from the journal ‘Nature’ will mean for global diet in the future.

Aquifer graphic from ‘Nature’

Diverting food to ethanol production drives food prices to record high

Global food prices reach record high.

Recently the World Bank released some worrying statistics about global food prices.

From June to July world food prices rose by 10% with corn and wheat prices rising a startling 25%.

Current prices are now higher than the previous price peak reached in February 2011. This Reuters article about this last price peak is still worth a read. The Reuters article suggests high food prices significantly contributed to the Arab Spring.

Al Jazeera’s ‘Inside Story’ this week addressed this issue and here is where you can watch the Al Jazeera piece ‘Hunger Games: the prices of feeding the world’.

There are numerous contributors to the rise in food prices, changing weather patterns are a significant driver of food shortages and price rises and NGO the World Development Movement suggests speculation on food futures markets are artificially inflating global food prices.

But close scrutiny of US agriculture and energy policies are also worth considering.

Full credit should go to the US for being responsible for 60% of the world’s food aid. This is a noteworthy achievement but US domestic policies are causing huge quantities of maize to be diverted to ethanol production.

But ultimately, as weather patterns continue to trend towards being less predictable, it is agricultural policies like this that will need to change – we simply will not have the luxury of using food to fuel our cars.