A kinder, gentler legislative log-jam

It’s no secret that I’m concerned about a small number of people, who garnered only a small proportion of the total vote, deciding who should form the next government of Australia. I can nevertheless understand the optimism vested in this political arrangement to deliver a kinder, gentler, more transparent, more accountable government.

It may well do so. But as a former lobbyist who has worked with governments dating back to the Hawke years, I can see a huge legislative log-jam looming in both houses of federal parliament, which will be bad for the economy and the community.

In the House of Representatives, where just one vote can change the fortune of any piece of legislation, there are four members who have reserved the right to vote on each Bill depending upon its individual merits.

No-one should underestimate what this means. There are literally hundreds of Bills that pass through parliament every year. Many are complex and require a particular policy expertise to decipher. Even if the Independents have secured the promise of additional staff from Prime Minister Gillard, they will be overwhelmed with the amount of detail they will need to master to judge each Bill on its merits, let alone the research needed to genuinely participate in parliamentary committees.

This means that one of two things will happen. It’s likely that in the spirit of transparency and consultancy the Indies will want to study every Bill closely and consult with all stakeholders. It’s also possible that the Indies will eventually shift their sights to pet issues and let the others fall into abeyance. Either way, this will inevitably slow down the legislative program, particularly for those Bills that aren’t related to “agreed” actions or supply. Most people aren’t aware of the scores of unsexy regulatory and policy reforms that languish on the legislative backburner because there’s not enough time in a parliamentary year to get them passed. I personally know about one important Bill that has been waiting seven years to get a slot on the legislative agenda. It still hasn’t passed and I’m sure there are many more.

On a less idealistic level, the pressure to keep on top of the whole legislative program will also expose the Indies to “helpful” lobbyists, keen to alleviate the load by providing “pre-cooked” legislative analysis. One needs to think no further than the assistance that Manildra will provide them on ethanol or Telstra on the NBN.

I believe we face a similar conundrum in the Senate. While the eight Green senators will have better resources, and a party platform, with which to assess every Bill, they will still hold out for their preferred position on every piece of legislation. Inevitably this will slow down the legislative process too.

While some might say that a legislative log-jam is a small price to pay for a kinder, gentler Parliament, I would disagree. Legislative uncertainty and delay can lead to less transparency and less accountability, as well as economic uncertainty. None of these are good for the Australian community.

This post was also featured at The Notion Factory