Do Ministers really need to be MPs?

Earlier today, NSW Labor leader Luke Foley announced that Jodi McKay would join his Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Planning Minister. What made this announcement significant was that she is not currently a member of the NSW Parliament. Ministers and Shadow Ministers have always been a member of Parliament in recent memory.

One of the recurring criticisms of state politics has been the dearth of talent in the parliamentary parties. State politics once mattered but it has now shrunk in perceived importance and it now plays second fiddle to federal politics. The shrinking political talent pool and focus on federal politics has meant that state politics has been disproportionately affected. This is despite states continuing to have responsibility for the delivery of essential services and programs that affects our quality of life on a daily basis.

Major parties have sought to address this dearth of talent through the parachuting of candidates into safe seats but more creative solutions are possible. While the Australian Constitution states that no Minister of State shall hold offer for more than 3 months unless they become a Member of Parliament, NSW does not explicitly have that prohibition. Ministers only have to be members of the Executive Council which is appointed by the Governor (with advice from the Premier). Only Parliamentary Secretaries need to be members of Parliament.

Given that NSW Ministers do not have to be members of Parliament, why not have Ministers from outside of Parliament? While it goes outside the Westminster tradition, it does occur in other parliamentary systems. So long as accountability to the Parliament and ensuring scrutiny through parliamentary processes is maintained, it should not be an issue. The greater use of committees and allowing Ministers appear at Question Time are some options.

Advocates of the Westminster system of government have argued that its flexibility is a key strength. That flexibility should be put to good use. NSW could serve as a model for rethinking the Westminster system in Australia. It would not be the first time that Labor has done this.

In 2002, South Australian Labor formed Government and included non-Labor members of Cabinet for the first time since 1904. It was the product of political circumstances where Labor was in the minority and needed support from the cross-bench to form government. The non-Labor Ministers were allowed the right to dissent and not be bound by Cabinet. It was a successful model that continued beyond a single election despite SA Labor winning in a landslide. So successful was the South Australian model that it was repeated in coalition governments in Tasmania and the ACT and again in South Australia after the 2014 election and it shaped the offer of a Ministry to Rob Oakeshott by Julia Gillard.

It was not the only experiment with Westminster governance by South Australian Labor. In 2005, Mike Rann installed two non-elected, non-Government as part of the South Australian Labor Cabinet’s senior Executive Committee, businessman, Robert Champion de Crespigny and senior Catholic Church member, Monsignor David Cappo.

The fact is some good Ministers make terrible MPs and some great MPs are terrible Ministers. It is something we should accept and have provisions that allow the recruitment of highly talented individuals who would make excellent Ministers at a state level without requiring them to become MPs. We should, however, be wary of its widespread use as it should only be used to recruit extremely talented individuals otherwise it will be open to abuse and will repeat current problems such as the appointment of party hacks to Ministerial positions.

The appointment of non-elected Ministers will not be a panacea to the broader problem of a shrinking political talent pool, only a more open, democratic and competitive process can do that, but it can be a good way to help improve the calibre of Ministers at a state level in NSW.

UPDATE 6/1/15: Not all states allow Ministers who are not a member of Parliament. Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania prohibit this in their Constitution Acts. All have Constitutions Acts that were adopted many years after Federation and have similar language to the Australian Constitution.

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