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.

Lessons from Victoria

Labor’s victory in Victoria was a watershed. For years, it had been a political truism that Government’s always win a second term. The defeat of the one-term Napthine Government not only shatters that illusion, it gives hope to Labor Oppositions everywhere.

Then we saw the unprecedented results in South Australia’s Fisher byelection and the Queensland polls showing Labor is neck-and-neck with the LNP. We can now truly believe that Labor has turned a corner.

Victoria has blazed a trail for Labor. We now have a proven campaign model for Labor to embrace federally and in other states, a model that we can use to campaign and win.

Campaign tactics received a lot of attention, but the biggest lesson out of Victoria is the embrace of the broader grassroots labour movement by the Party. As Premier Daniel Andrews said:

There are some that wanted to it be all about unions and workers, and that is exactly what it was.

Victorian Trades Hall’s ‘We Are Union’ campaign electrified the election effort. Unions mobilised hundreds of firefighters, nurses, teachers and paramedics across marginal seats. These workers were instrumental in eliminating a one-term Coalition Government. Just as with the Your Rights at Work campaign, when organised workers are front and centre in a united campaign, we will not be defeated.

The other lesson from the Victorian election is the need to communicate a clear policy agenda. Incumbency was not enough to offset a muddled message from the Coalition. Labor, in contrast, made clear election commitments on the East-West Link, improving public transport and restoring TAFE funding.

Federal Labor must likewise present a clear policy agenda or face disillusionment and aimlessness. Rejection of Tony Abbott’s extreme agenda combined with a small target strategy may be appealing – but it will not be enough to win and consolidate power.

Shaun Wilson makes a strong case that the next federal Labor Government will face a new set of challenges more difficult to solve than those faced by its predecessors.

Those challenges will not be met by wallowing in nostalgia. Rather Labor must provide answers to the pressing problems of contemporary life. We must address the growing pressures on the balance between work and caring, and the need to reform our welfare state to reduce growing inequality and improve living standards. We must ensure quality and affordable early childhood education.

Avoiding these tough questions will do Labor no favours in the long run. We must carve out a new agenda consistent with Labor values.

Originally appeared in the Summer 2014-15 edition of Challenge

Labor needs a culture of ideas

Keynes in his General Theory famously wrote: ‘Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.’

For Labor, his words are a reminder we need to reform our ideas, not merely our rules.

Challenge aims to foster this debate and to create a culture within Labor that puts real discussion about policy front and centre.

The need to challenge the increasingly radical agenda of the Coalition makes this all the more urgent. Their agenda is pre-planned and well-organised, inspired by zealots from the Institute for Public Affairs and donors with deep pockets expecting high rewards.

A culture of ideas can only be achieved by engaging in discussion both within and outside the Party. External expertise has always been vital to the Labor agenda. The original Medibank, introduced by the Whitlam Government, was conceived and designed by health economist John Deeble and his colleague Richard Scotton.

In that spirit, Richard Denniss from The Australia Institute tackles the big challenge of how to fund our social program while still balancing the budget. His analysis lays bare one of the key debates inside Labor in the lead up to National Conference, how can we honestly accept the current level of taxation as a proportion of GDP given Labor’s aspirations for the size and role of Government?

Our search for the best ideas must also have an international lens. Our counterparts across the globe face similar challenges. We look to them for ideas and inspiration. Mark Ferguson outlines some of the radical reforms that the British Labour Party has undertaken as it approaches the 2015 General Election.

As a party of government, Labor can never forget the critical need for ideas that capture the imagination. We need to give people hope about the Labor project and a vision of what Labor will bring to government. The lessons of 1972, 1983 and 2007 are that a positive agenda, full of ideas, is necessary for Labor to win.

In the quest for a Labor culture of ideas, Challenge applauds the great work happening elsewhere, including by the Fabians and the Chifley Research Centre. The NSW Left’s own Annual Bruce Childs Lecture provides a new forum for sustained analysis. The Left will continue to champion a Party culture where debate about ideas and policy is as crucial as discussions about party rules.


Originally posted at Challenge Magazine

What makes an idea dangerous?

Earlier today, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas released its 2014 program. Amongst the line-up was an event on honour killings being morally justified with a spokesperson from the Islamic fundamentalist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Understandably there has been uproar on social media over the event and even calls for a boycott. Destroy the Joint has called for people to contact the curators of the event and call for the event to be withdrawn.

The overwhelming majority of people would agree that the idea that honour killings are acceptable is repugnant and morally objectionable but does that actually make it a dangerous idea?

Joint founder and co-curator of the festival Simon Longstaff has said that point of the event is to push boundaries “to the point where you become extremely uncomfortable”. I would disagree with Simon that pushing the boundaries of comfort equates to a dangerous idea.

The parent word ‘danger’ is derived from the Middle English word ‘daunger’ meaning “power, dominion, peril” and goes back to the Latin word ‘dominus’ meaning “lord, master” while the Old French word ‘dangereus’ means “threatening, difficult”. The word ‘dangerous’ is tied up with power, authority and threats.

To me, an idea is dangerous if can cause harm to the powerful by threatening their vested interests. Ideas that challenge their power, control, authority and influence. None of the sessions at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas do that. The aim of the festival’s events clearly is to shock bourgeois sensibilities to drive ticket sales.

A more appropriate title would be the Festival of Unpopular Ideas but it probably wouldn’t sell as many tickets.

UPDATE: The Opera House has released a statement saying the event has been cancelled.