Australia marking time III: governance

by on January 28, 2018

WHAT is the difference between “governance” and “government”? Some say nothing and that “governance” is just affectation, but political scientists usually make the distinction. Governance, they say is the overarching architecture of government – the constitution, broad electoral rules, rules on disclosure, and the institutional set-up. Government, on the other hand is the nitty gritty of everyday revenue-raising and spending and the myriad pieces of legislation and regulation dealing with everyday matters.

To continue the architecture analogy, with a house, governance deals with things like whether you do an extension; revamp kitchens with a new fridge or revamp bathrooms, or install solar power or a swimming pool. Government is– what do you put into the fridge; what should come out of it when; when should you run air-conditioners as distinct from whether they should be installed in the first place.

On governance, Australia, at least federally, has been in a state of almost paralysis all this century.

This is the third in our four-part January series on how our politicians have not done a good job in adapting policy to changing circumstances or when policies do not work.

The governance failing ran hot in 2017. The dual-citizenship crisis left Australians bewildered. The blunt rejection of the Uluru declaration on Indigenous recognition by the Turnbull Government added to a sense of frustration within and beyond Indigenous communities.

The kicking of the republican can down the road to do nothing until the Queen is dead made Australians seem like unimaginative scaredy-cats.

And these are just the symbols. Real governance issues like corporate and foreign donations to political parties and MPs, real-time effective disclosure and freedom of information remained in the zombie zone.

The critical importance of the rules and conventions of governance is this: they constrain the powerful and the evil-doers, and they empower the powerless and the good.

The dual-citizenship crisis was a classic of Australian politicians failing to adapt to changes in circumstance. The change since 1901, of course, was that so many of us now were born overseas or born in Australia to parents who were born overseas. The other change, relating to the “office of profit” disqualification, was that government has grown so big that a significant portion of Australians either work or are contracted to it, making them ineligible under the strict wording of Section 44.

So, the Government and the Labor Party schadenfreudenly laughed at the admirable decision of former Greens Senator Scott Ludlum to resign upon learning of his dual New Zealand citizenship, but they should have agreed to look into the issue and propose solutions.

My guess is that referendum approval would have been obtained for a new Section 44 along the following lines:

“Until the Parliament otherwise provides:

“Any person eligible to stand for a state legislature is eligible to stand for either House of the Federal Parliament.

“Any person born in Australia or who has been naturalised under a law of the Commonwealth is eligible to stand for either House of the Federal Parliament.

“Notwithstanding the above, any person declared elected by the Australian Electoral Commission in any election before this amendment is deemed to have been eligible for election.”

But no. We had an unseemly exercise in point-scoring as to who had obeyed foreign renunciation laws. Grow up. Get rid of the apron strings.

Several governance issues remain. The marriage vote is about to spawn an inquiry into religious freedom. Let’s hope it backfires on the religious right in the same way that the divisive and unnecessary plebiscite on marriage did.

A call for debate about religious freedom may widen into a debate about freedom and human rights generally and result in a call for a general Bill of Rights in our Constitution.

That is a realistic prospect. If so, the reactionaries and conservatives will be running out of feet through which they can shoot themselves.

Continuing with governance and shootable feet, the Coalition’s correct attack on Labor’s Senator Sam Dastyari has led to opportunistic proposals to end to foreign influence. But the Coalition is not Caesar’s wife on this. Moreover, the public wonders, if FOREIGN corporate bribery is bad, why isn’t ALL corporate bribery bad. Shouldn’t all corporate donations to political parties be banned also?

Oddly enough, the more the major parties go into psychotic paralysis on such questions the more the public want action.

A Centre for Policy Development poll found that 77 per cent of Australians backed an anti-corruption commission; 58 per cent were in favour of four-year parliamentary terms; 79 per cent wanted a tougher code of conduct for parliamentarians; and 57 per cent favoured a constitutional convention to “update the Australian constitution for the 21st century”.

Yet, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australians “have no appetite” for constitutional change. This was after former Prime Minister needled him into floating the idea of a postal plebiscite like the one on marriage.

He then failed to follow through, presumably because it would disturb the conservative rump of his party, who have already worked out that giving the public a say is a dangerous thing because the broad public does not see the world in the same way as the three As: Abbott, Abetz and Andrews.

So nothing happens.

I have argued previous that a large part of the republic question can be resolved by legislation, rather than referendum. Just call the Governor-General, who is also President of the Federal Executive Council (Section 62 of the Constitution), “President”. Legislate that the Prime Minister may not put a name to the Queen for the position of President (of the Federal Executive Council) and Governor-General unless that person has been approved by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting, or whatever.

Fixed terms, simultaneous elections, having the Parliament elect the Prime Minister after an election are all ways of reducing the Governor-General’s discretion to make the transition to a full republic easier.

Proper Indigenous recognition and participation remains a festering national sore.

Symbols are important. The marriage vote shows Australians do in fact have an appetite for human rights, equality and the way we are seen in the world. We know what is stopping that appetite being satisfied.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and Fairfax Media on 20 January 2018.

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