Originally published by The Conversation, May 8, 2012.
[A short essay proposing an innovation for the Australian approach to representative democracy (although the point does extend to other, similar, political jurisdictions). Ministers are clearly busy with their portfolio(s) so how is it possible for them to also represent their constituents? It’s a pretty easy jump from there to propose that ministers should be ministers and representatives should be representatives.]
Australia is on the eve of receiving one of its most anticipated budget announcements.
Wayne Swan and the team within the Treasury have put together a pillar from which the Labor Party will draw strength from in the lead-up to the federal election. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has been naturally critical, as his role mandates he must.
But there is a problem here – one that is, for the most part, lost in the flashy lights of contemporary politics.
What Wayne Swan, Joe Hockey, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott all have in common is that they are, by the nature of their roles, two-headed beings. One head has been elected to represent the interests of their constituencies. The other must manage extremely important and very complex portfolios.
They must carry both of these heads on a body that has to survive the often treacherous waters within their own political party and of course the even more dangerous waters lurking between parties as well as with lobbyist interactions. I have a question for these four individuals and any other constituent-representing, portfolio-holding MP: how is it humanly possible to effectively fulfil both roles at the same time?
My concern with current political engineering in Australia and in other countries with similar systems is that the constituents of portfolio-holding MPs are at an obvious disadvantage.
MPs around the world know how very taxing and time-consuming representing a single constituency can be and frankly, in a representative system, a basic expectation from voters is that at least one person will be working tirelessly on their behalf.
Now, if an MP is selected by the cabinet or PM to hold a specific portfolio (it is not uncommon for one MP to hold more than one portfolio), it is simply not possible to fulfil the basic expectation of dedicated representation for that constituency. They have to give their time to manage one or more truly important portfolios on behalf of the country.
This obviously reduces the attention that these individuals can give to the citizens in their constituency. Wayne Swan and a number of his chief aides, for example, might not be available to meet with a constituent because they are overseas holding strategic talks.
In another example, Tony Abbott might be too busy shoring up support for his party’s bid for the upcoming election to hear about a number of Warringah’s needs that their local council cannot provide. This situation simply does not make sense and needs to be seriously addressed.
A proposition to solve this issue would be to have the offices that are meant to manage portfolios directly elected by the public.
This model would see the parliament expand by 21 seats, the size of the current cabinet.
On election day, Australian voters would have an additional decision to make at the ballot. They would be able to vote for their local representative of choice as well as casting a separate vote for their Treasurer, Prime Minister, Minister for Health and so on.
Political parties would nominate their separate candidates for executive office (preferably through primaries), independents would be able to run, and citizens in the end would choose what their executive looked like and who came to hold these critical roles.
These executive members would sit with their parties or independently, participate as members of the executive currently do in the House of Representatives, and then move to the cabinet to get on with business without having to shirk the responsibilities of a constituency. It is essentially the creation of a third directly elected body in parliament.
This model has its place in recent political theory. From discursive democracy and certain empirical studies, there is the desire to create the conditions of a coalition in the executive. This is because coalition governments have thus far, in international comparative politics, made better choices than majority governments. In other words, coalitions work through the necessity of discursive roadblocks, normally making for better politics.
Through the means of choosing the executive, we see the injection of more direct citizen input. It’s more democratic and would spell stronger outcomes for Australia or other similarly structured polities.
Given that this opens the possibility for different parties to be present in the formal cabinet, this idea does have the potential to produce a degree of chaos and intra-parliamentary madness. That being said, it’s hard to imagine a parliamentary situation more mad than the one we currently have.
Another benefit of this proposition is that MPs representing their constituencies will be forced to do exactly that, and not be whisked away from their electors by other, shinier, opportunities.
In my opinion, this is an advancement in political engineering that should be mulled over by at least the Australian public (for a small ask!).
It was roughly a century ago that Australia gave the world the secret ballot, then known as the “Australian ballot”. It could now be time for another innovation to spring forward from this “sunburnt country”.
I think Lilley, QLD, deserves the full attention of not Australia’s Treasurer but rather Lilley’s Member of Parliament. The same goes for Joe Hockey (North Sydney), Julia Gillard (Lalor, Vic), and Tony Abbott (Warringah, NSW).
These constituencies deserve the undivided attention of their representatives and Australia deserves the full attention of its executive.
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