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.

NSW Labor’s leadership contest

The resignation of John Robertson months before the state election has thrown a spanner into the works for NSW Labor. Few expect Labor to win in March and even fewer expected Robertson to continue as leader post-election but a 2PP swing of 10% and the return of 15 seats seemed likely. Labor would have new MPs, elect a new leader and be competitive for 2019. All that is now up in the air.

While NSW Labor now directly elects its party leader, the new rules adopted ensured that it would only occur after the 2015 election and if there was more than six months until a state election. This Caucus only ballot will occur on January 5. Until the ballot, Deputy Leader Linda Burney will be the Acting Leader of the Opposition.

To date, two contenders have declared their candidacy: Michael Daley and Steve Whan. Both are from the Right and have been touted as potential leaders in the past. Linda Burney has also been suggested as a candidate. The main contender who has not declared his candidacy yet is Upper House leader Luke Foley.

The main barriers to Luke Foley becoming the leader have been the lack of a Lower House seat and his membership of the Left. With Robertson’s resignation and the need to quickly get a new leader, these barriers are disappearing courtesy of Head Office.

The emergence of a deal to let him take the state seat of Auburn through a National Executive intervention addresses the lack of a Lower House seat. The pre-selection there has not been finalised and it would be a solution to the reports of branch stacking that have dogged the Auburn pre-selection process.

Being part of the Left faction means being in the Caucus minority. Of Labor’s current Caucus, 14 MPs are from the Left, 22 are from the Right and one is unaligned. To gain a majority and become leader, Foley would need support for an additional five MPs, mainly from the Right. Who could those five be? The Right’s Walt Secord is on the record as a Foley supporter and with Head Office’s backing, it seems likely he will get at least four others if he decides to run.

While Luke Foley would be the best option, he does have baggage. He is a machine man, having been a union secretary and also been the NSW Labor Assistant General Secretary. There has also been a lot of controversy over his socially conservative views on marriage equality, however, he is clearly Labor’s most effective Shadow Minister. He cuts through and scored multiple hits on the Government in the environment portfolio. The same cannot be said of the other contenders.

If Foley does become leader, it seems unlikely that he would accept unless Head Office backed him in a the ballot post-election. It also might mean that the expected post-election direct election does not occur. More concerning is it may mean that leaders are torn down six months before an election to avoid a direct election.

Whatever does happen, the new leader needs to ensure Labor articulate a clear vision and plan for New South Wales. It has not outlined an alternative to the Liberal’s plan to fund infrastructure through privatisation which is a major weakness. There is only so much that a new face can do for Labor, the party needs a credible agenda. Opposition to privatisation will not be enough as the public remembers Labor’s attempts to privatise electricity. Whoever is elected Labor’s leader must show leadership and ensure that credible agenda for Government is developed and campaigned for over the next two elections.

UPDATE 28/12/14: Luke Foley has announced he will contest the NSW Labor leadership but will run in a rank-and-file preselection for Auburn.

UPDATE 29/12/14: Steve Whan has withdrawn from the leadership ballot & Linda Burney has ruled herself out.

UPDATE 30/12/14: Michael Daley has pulled out leaving Luke Foley as the only candidate for leader.