16. Government 2.0

Good government - Lesko

The Westminster system, and the “Ausminster” system that is derived from it, are adversarial in nature.  This is probably the logical evolution of a system derived from the legal process where outcomes are often binary – the result is guilt or innocence.  And if a bit of stretching of the truth, creating doubt about the evidence, using dodgy experts, or taking advantage of due process to achieve the desired result is required, then that is what they’ll do. The end justifies the means. It is no surprise that so many politicians come from a legal background.  But we rarely have corporations run by lawyers, so why government?  Because history.  This needs to change.  We need Government 2.0  Whereas even as recently as forty years ago, governments were easily the most powerful organisations on the planet, the growth of some fairly major multinationals has resulted in commercial interests flexing their muscle and capability.  Like governments, these organisations employ the brightest and best.  However, I’m guessing that almost every Chief Financial Officers of our large global multinationals has a background in accountancy or economics, and possibly both. Why then would our governments appoint a lawyer to run that role, and expect them to do it well?

So we’ve already determined that we need MPs with a slightly more open perspective to help run our country.  But we do want them to have strong views and ideas.  How might that work in practice?

Chicken and Egg

What came first, the government or the election?  In trying to explain the possible election process, I’ve realised that first you need to explain what the day-to-day job of running a government, at the very highest level, needs to be.  But in order to explain that, you first need to show how you get those players into those positions!  However, a new, party-free election process is going to be a bit more complicated than updated governmental processes, so we are going to start here.

Lets assume that we’ve elected our Prime Minister and our MPs. Most MPs will be returning, some will be new.  Ideally we’ve kept those who have done a good job (regardless of their political persuasion) and replaced those who weren’t up to scratch, either in ability or attitude.  As we’ve said, all MPs are independent, although (as you will discover in the next chapter) all will have suggested a preferred PM to lead the country, in the election process.

The Leadership Team

As we will discuss more in the next chapter when we look at elections, whilst I expect that whilst Prime Ministers will be the focal point, they will have a core leadership team of perhaps four other members whose role will be to help the PM ensure the processes of government run smoothly.  Tony Abbott’s government suffered significantly from employing an unelected “Chief of Staff”, Peta Credlin, who managed ministers and MPs, often to their significant annoyance.  In an elected system, I believe this is completely inappropriate, but again reveals the abuse of the system that political parties can impose, essentially undermining an otherwise elected democratic leadership.

Many leaders have such a core team, particularly useful when dealing with crisis, perhaps most famously in an Australian that might be the GFC (when Rudd created a highly effective key team of himself, Gillard, Swann and finance minister Lindsay Tanner to deal with that particular emergency).  But “kitchen cabinets” aren’t new, and commonly exist in business too as executive teams, often of board members who also work within the business.

A high quality leadership team with an effective leader at its head sits at the heart of any successful organisation, and the same should apply to our government.

The Leader of the Opposition

One of the great benefits of our parliamentary system, and one which actually gives it potentially great advantage over the commercial world, is that we mandate a different opinion within parliament.  As we’ve stated before, the value of different perspectives in the problem solving process improves the final outcome.  The role of the Leader of the Opposition is highly important, indeed after the PM, the Deputy PM and the Treasurer, the Leader of the Opposition is the fourth most highly paid member in the House.

Traditionally the person appointed to this position is the leader of the party who polled the second highest number of seats. However, I don’t believe that this necessarily best qualifies them to most effectively undertake this role in our non-party world, and I will come back to this in our chapter on elections.  Whilst many political commentators described Tony Abbott as the most effective Leader of the Opposition, I would strongly disagree.  This person should play a vital part of ensuring that due diligence has been undertaken in the process of government, through consultation with affected and interested parties, and testing the validity of new legislation through structured criticism, it should not be about name calling, nor electioneering, nor blaming or comparing.  Their role is to ensure that committees and working groups contain a fair representation of elected members to ensure quality outcomes.

During the process of determining whether a particular person might be considered a saint, the Roman Catholic church appoints one person to be “The Devil’s Advocate”.  Their role is to take on opposing position, which may not be necessarily their own, to properly test that the initial position is valid.  Such a role, taking such positions, would make an excellent training ground for a future Prime Minister, widening their perspective on policies, thinking outside their normal viewpoint, and taking on a range of opposing viewpoints, not simply their own.

Before the Cabinet is appointed, the Leader of the Opposition must be determined first.  As the numero uno critic, their first responsibility will be to ensure that the Cabinet reflects at least to some degree, the sentiments of the general public.

The Cabinet

One of the first things a newly appointed, or indeed re-appointed, Prime Minister will do is determine their executive team, the Cabinet.  Just as the CEO of any organisation would.  Who can they ask?  In our brave new world, they can ask any MP to do the role.  Ideally someone with the proper credentials, with the proper background, with the right skills.  It might even be someone who was a minister supporting a PM of a different political leaning.  A smart PM will understand that to get the job done, they will need to better reflect the wishes of the population.

Elections refresh the pool of MPs available for selection.  Some previous ones will have retired, some will have been re-elected, some will be new.  With (hopefully) more accurate information from the election about voters preferences, ensuring an appropriate diversity of thought makes most sense.  Whilst many party politicians would have you believe that it’s either “my way or the highway”, the reality is that there are many ways to solve problems, and as we’ve discussed before, groupthink is best avoided if you want to come up with better quality solutions.

The likelihood is that those placed in Cabinet positions won’t be those who are first time elected.  Knowing the ropes will be clearly of benefit.  Some positions may also be less politically contentious than others.  For example with both sides of parliament fairly much on a unity ticket on defence, would it really matter if the Minister for Defence was from the right, or left side of politics?   The key is to pick quality, capable candidates who understand the brief, as well as the nuances about what the electorate want.

A good Cabinet will allow the voicing of a range of opinions and perspectives. But it will also recognise the need to get the job done.  Being obstinate and difficult may result in the Minister being replaced, just as it should in any other organisation, but not for simply voicing a different perspective.

The Shadow Cabinet

With the Cabinet decided, the Leader of the Opposition now has the opportunity to build their shadow cabinet, mirroring those positions on the Cabinet.  As with the Leader of the Opposition, the role of such shadow ministers will be to ensure that their opposite members are doing their jobs thoroughly, considering the  viewpoints of those impacted, and following correct procedures.  This shadow cabinet may also be made up of MPs of different political persuasions, including those who noted a preference to support that Prime Minister prior to the general election.  Whilst colleagues of similar political outlook might be helping the government build legislation, the Shadow Cabinet member needs to take an external perspective.

A good Shadow Cabinet is not one whose job is to try and bring down the current Government, but one that ensures that the Government does an excellent job.  Their role is of vital importance to good government.

The Back Bench

Singular.  With no parties, the back bench will be composed of all those members who are neither in the Cabinet and/or Executive Team, nor the Shadow Cabinet.  They are, however, paid jobs and as such those backbenchers will need to earn their keep.

Of course as members, they will have roles voting for, or against, legislation that is brought before the house.  Unlike the current situation where such votes are largely based on party lines, this will not be the case in a party free environment.  And of course this brings greater responsibility.  Members will no longer be able to “go with the flow”, but will have to determine their own position and vote accordingly.  Moreover, how they vote should reflect any stated position before the election, or there should be significant reasoning provided as to why they have changed it.  Which is, of course, quite acceptable but may not be to their electorate.  That will be determined at the time of reckoning, the next general election.

However, we really need our MPs to be doing more than that.  Depending on the priorities of the government (both planned and unplanned!) some Cabinet members portfolios might be busier than others, and as such help will be required.   With the knowledge and experiences that members have acquired before coming to Parliament, I’d fully expect members to be putting themselves forward to assist in portfolios of which they have expertise.  This might be on parliamentary committees, or even on helping supervise specific projects.

Otherwise, their role might be to investigate and pursue new ideas, and bring up private members bills to support them.  Hopefully electorates will be voting for candidates bursting with ideas, and once they’ve got into that position of responsibility, they should be given an opportunity to pursue such ideas albeit in a properly managed way.  For example, a member might be committed to decreasing our dependency on petroleum products through electric vehicles.  With the approval of the Minister for Health, they might develop a discussion paper on what other countries have done to promote such, and the costs to ensure that adequate infrastructure is available.  With approval this might lead to a pilot scheme, and eventually on to a fuller development if the business case stacks up. Just like the “real world”.

Whatever it is, they need to be busy, they need to be productive, and we, the payers of their wages, need to know what they are doing on our coin.  Throughout my career, producing a weekly status report of some description was mandatory (and often this was augmented by a time report revealing exactly what tasks I had been doing, and for how long).  This isn’t rocket science!  We need some level of transparency so we can know what our elected members are actually up to.  We pay for them to have office support, so lets have them keep us in the loop what they are up to, such that when their contract is up for renewal at election time, we have some evidence that they are doing what we believe they should be doing.

Like any job, the chances for promotion will come to those who clearly are productive and haven’t just been sitting on their thumbs, basking in their safe seat.  Because as we’ll see in the next chapter, whilst those seats may be safe to a particular political persuasion, they aren’t necessarily safe to the member in it!

As the quote says, “Good government only happens when the people working in it do their jobs, and do them well.”  And having someone looking over their shoulder probably helps too…

About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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