Martin Ferguson’s comments in support of the Howard government’s bogus climate forum[1] remind me of why I dislike the hereditary principle in politics. Australian politics and the Parliamentary Labor party in particular is full of people who are there only because their fathers (or, more rarely, mothers) were politicians themselves.This wasn’t true, or not to anything like the same extent, thirty years ago.

A few of these hereditary princelings have made a reasonable contribution, but on the whole, they’re a dead weight, and Ferguson is a prime example of the latter category. If he’s done anything to justify the positions he’s held, I’m not aware of it.

The core of the problem is that the membership of the major parties has collapsed to the point where an extended family and its retainers can form the basis of an effective sub-faction, capable of winning preselections. Short of radical changes in both politics and society, it’s hard to see this changing.

One possible response would be to move to a primary system for preselections, on the US model. This hasn’t, of course, stopped the operation of the hereditary principle there, but I think that there is less of a cult of political celebrity here – I can’t imagine that names like Downer or Ferguson command many votes among the Australian public.

fn1. The derisory contribution offered by the US Administration (a budget request for $52 million, equal to about 0.0005 per cent of US GDP, which will probably not be delivered anyway) is an indication of the seriousness with which the US took the meeting, as is the fact that (as far as I can tell) it wasn’t even reported in the US press. The same is true, from what I can see of the other participants. The whole thing is, in essence, window-dressing to cover the Howard government’s failure to ratify Kyoto.

57 thoughts on “Princelings

  1. Terje, term limits are well known in US discussion. The most notorious case is that presidents can’t serve more than two terms. The drafting does require a lot of care to avoid loopholes like quitting just before the end of a full term and so on. The idea is to prevent a political class developing, the downside is precisely that when it succeeds you get more democracy and less competence. But which would you rather have, malice or competence? and what are your underlying objectives? These are deep matters which I have not so far gone into for reasons of space.

    Cumulative voting is the most transparent system of voting that gets close to being truly representative. This may be why politicians seem never to have adopted it willingly, though sometimes it has been thrust upon them (or upon company boards), e.g. by the courts. You have multi-member constituencies, and each voter gets several votes to “spend” in a concentrated or spread way as he or she chooses. A six vote/three candidate system is fairly sound from having a good mix of natural ways of splitting things up. Fringe positions can be represented, and parties can be accomodated by having a slate (not necessarily on the voting forms) – yet party hacks can be rejected as individuals and not pushed through by parties (think how senate how to vote lists work in practice). This is largely because what happens does relate to an individual’s intended outcome.

    On the senate/lower house changes, I was aiming for an acceptable tranistion (the turkeys will vote for Christmas – for other turkeys lower on the ladder), and I wanted a good split of control over the ambitious that still allowed them to contribute. The key is never to allow the democratic component to go native and get captured – which means, you cannot have the whole democratic as that only lets the turkeys (politicians) exercise their judgment over what is good and desirable as well as how best to implement things.

    The quorum requirements by state, and the joint sitting of state houses to work as a federal lower house, is intended to eliminate the “tiers of government” problem. Essentially, you have a sort of slantwise cut across the two dimensions of state/federal and upper/lower, so you still only have two lots rather than dozens (that’s from “combinatorial explosion”, if you’ve ever heard of it).

    Objections might be made that there would be too much work for them to handle all of it. Good. That sort of thing is what politicians say once they have gone native, the way Tony Abbott recently pointed out how hard working and committed they are; it’s true but not the point of having them. We would be far better off if they concentrated on reducing their workload.

    That doesn’t mean leaving work undone, merely combatting Parkinson’s Law rather than feeding the beast. As things are now constructed, they never engineer out the need any more than the rat catcher kills all the rats (it would destroy his career). With this incentive structure there are no political careers that need feeding that way, and we wouldn’t get the tendency for “smaller government” to mean “drop them in it without a paddle” – which only an idiot would advocate (I want to get rid of the “it” we could be dropped in). “Happy the land that has no need of heroes” – or politicians. What we need is a few statesmen, and the means and wisdom to keep them honest without becoming as they are in our turn (see Democrats, Australian).

  2. Terje has said

    ‘Will said:-

    Australia only needs a national and local-regional governments.

    How about this then. We abolish the states and transfer all of their powers (plus some federal powers) to local governments. You still effectively have more states.’

    Not so, sir. The local and regional governments would only need to take care of local issues (the environment etc), State departments would disappear and much useless duplication (in education, taxation, social services, health care etc) would be abolished. Local governments would also have a uniform constitution.

    By abolishing State parliaments, we could save billions just in wages.

  3. Will,
    I suggest you look at how much the pretty pollies in State parliaments are paid. Saving ‘billions’ would require a lot more parliaments than we have.
    The better option (IMHO) would be to eliminate the duplication – why do we need both state and federal departments of health and education, for example? Get rid of the federal department in both cases and the actual outcomes to the clients would not be affected – net gain results.
    Personally, if we were going to get rid of a level of government, I would suggest the federal.

  4. The Australian Constitution is a Bill of Rights for the Monarchy and for the States.

    But the Australian Constitution defines no rights for individuals against the desire of government to increase its powers.

    The Constitution prohibits the Federal Government from doing a proscribed list of things.

    Constitutional conservatives prate on about “responsibilities” as a superior basis for civil society than “rights”.

    This prejudice drives conservatives’ opposition to a Bill of Rights for individuals. Janet Albrechtson was banging on about it in the “Australian” today. Her gripe was against giving judges power over parliaments. Well if that’s the case, why have a written constitution at all?

    Frankly, I’d prefer the British formula of the sovereignty of parliament to the jimcrack pretence of constutionalism embodied in our constipated mongrel scrap ofpaper.

  5. PML,

    Okay that clears things up a lot. I am pretty sympathetic to all the things you advocate.

    1. Fixed terms. Lets say you can get voted in four times only. On three year terms that gives you a maximum of twelve years in parliament.

    2. Cumulative voting. I want to sell my votes on ebay and let the hightest bidder spend them as they see fit. Maybe. Is that an option?

    3. I like the idea that the house of review should just be a joint sitting of state parliaments. If not that then senators should be appointed by state parliaments.

    4. I agree that politicians have too much work due to their own willingness to engage in mission creep. We need more politicians that are more intelligent and more lazy.

    I also thing that we should have fixed terms for laws. Most laws should expire automatically after a set trial period.

    For example all proposed permanent laws would need support from 80% of the parliament. All laws with a proposed duration of 40 years would need at least 79% support. And for every year knocked off the duration of the proposed law the support required might drop by 1%. And so on until suport reaches 50% where the law is not passed at all. This way we tend to only get enduring laws based on broad concensus, not on a narrow majority.


  6. Terje, 12 years/4 terms is too much and wouldn’t avoid careeritis. What might work is being ineligible to run (not “remain”) if a sitting member for more than three years out of any twelve.

    When I said “spend” votes, I meant that as a clarifying analogy to show how theye are used at the polls. A voter hands in (say) six voting slips, which he or she can apply all to one candidate or split among a slate – or informal.

    The time lapse on laws exists already, either when laws are deliberately written with a sunset clause or when they occur under a legal system which defaults to this. It is then known as “desuetude”; you might want to read up on this. It is likely to cause inconsistencies with Westminster practice, although curiously it does (or did) occur in Scots Law.

  7. I understood what you meant by “spend”. But I don’t know why the range of buyers should be limited to politicians. I would like to sell my vote to somebody besides Howard or Beazley. I am sure I could get a better offer on eBay.

    Thanks for the reference to “desuetude”. However I was looking for a more explicit system of time limits for parliament made laws. Rather than a legislative process based on majority whim I would prefer one based on a larger body of concensus. I would just live with the executive being based on a simple majority.

    Under my proposal no law would be permanent unless 80% of the parliament (or relavant house) agreed with the proposed law. I suspect that laws against murder and rape would have little trouble getting 80% support.

    Other laws like anti-sedition legislation would probably not get 80% support so they would have to be more limited in duration. If the expected level of support was 65% then under the proposal that I made above the law would need to be framed in such a way that it had a 25 year sunset clause. Of course the 65% majority could evergreen the law by refreshing the legislation every few years. However it would require an active will and continued support to keep such a law in play.

    I look at laws such as the following one and believe it should have been repealed or lapsed long ago. It is unlikely to be repealed because it is not going to catch the attention of the politicians, or the imagination of the wider public. However it still places obstacles in the way of social and economic innovation.

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