Listen Up COAG: Five Ways to Reform Politics


COAG Members, April 2015. Credit: COAG


It's so tempting to blame Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten or other politicians for all that is wrong with politics today.

After 25 years in regional politics, I know for a fact that the problem is not the politician, it's the system that shapes and creates them.

Whether it's our state and federal leaders talking about tax reform at their COAG meeting this week, Abbott wrestling with budget bottom lines or Shorten struggling with his union baggage, the fact is they are all  the product of an out of date, adversarial, zero-sum, blame-shifting parliamentary system.  The same applies to Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd or any of the other characters who have risen and fallen on the tide of Australian political opinion.

If COAG fails to address some of the complex issues on its agenda, don't be surprised and don't necessarily blame the participants.

Our system no longer serves us well.  It no longer gets the best out of the individual. Far from appealing to our better angels, it brings out the inner demons.

Imagine you're creating a business. Do you establish a board to run the business where a majority of the board is given all the vital expert information and has all the decision-making power, and a minority of board members has little information and no power and is given the role of getting rid of the majority at all costs?

Such a business would be bound to fail ...yet that is exactly how our Parliamentary system is constructed. Is it any wonder people are filled with cynicism?

If the system is fundamentally flawed, don't be surprised if the players within the system appear flawed themselves.  If COAG fails to address some of the complex issues on its agenda, don't be surprised and don't necessarily blame the participants.  The system itself is bound to make it virtually impossible to make brave decisions on complex issues.

I've had some experience with this system - 25 years in Australia's largest Council, 17 years in Civic Cabinet and four years in the unique role as leader of the Labor majority and a Labor Deputy Mayor to the then Liberal Lord Mayor Campbell Newman, before he went on to become Premier of Queensland.

I believe based on this experience it is possible to reform the system.

Our system no longer serves us well.  It no longer gets the best out of the individual.

For four years, Newman and I ran Brisbane with a Labor-Liberal coalition cabinet that included Councillors from both sides of Council, where both sides received the same expert advice and where 98% of the time we agreed on difficult decisions.

It was by no means an easy or seamless task and we could have done it better.

These are my five steps towards reform:

1. Get rid of the title 'Opposition'.

Call them ‘the minority’ or even ‘the alternative government’ - but ‘opposition’ as a job description is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2. Mix up the parliament.

Having one gang with all the power on one side of the parliament and the other gang on the other side just encourages bad chemistry and bad behaviour. Arrange seating by alphabetical order. As Labor Council Leader, I sat next to Liberal Lord Mayor Newman in Civic Cabinet and Council meetings for four years. We got to know each other as human beings.  We shared stories about our families. It humanised our discourse. Parliaments all too often become dehumanised environments. Removing the 'us' vs 'them' seating arrangements would have a surprising effect.

3. Massively cut campaign funding.

Before we completely follow the ruinous US model of ever increasing campaign funding, stop and impose tight maximums on campaigns and severe penalties for breaking those maximums. Take funding out of the domain of powerful institutions like big business, developers and unions.  That will start to change the decisions that are made in our parliaments. There is a direct connection between funding inputs and policy outputs. To deny that is to deny one of the fundamentals of modern politics.

4. Share expert advice.

Good policy should be based on good advice. Briefings and advice on the economy, security and all important issues should be provided equally to all elected officials. It's surprising how often common ground is found when people of differing backgrounds are presented with the same information and advice by experts on action about complex issues.

5. Share the pain of decision-making. 

Yes, making important difficult sections about complex issues is painful. There are always winners and losers. Losers are always given more time and volume in the media. Sharing decisions can be an effective way of neutralising the often shrill voices of opposition when difficult decisions have to be made. There are ways of making decisions other than the old, adversarial winner-takes-all Westminster parliamentary system. The key here is shared information, shared blame and shared credit.

These aren't simple steps.  Even changing seating in parliament is a radical step for some.

But if we don't start somewhere, we'll continue to spiral downwards into a national cynical abyss.

David Hinchliffe

Former Deputy Mayor and Labor Leader, Brisbane City Council

Published Date
July 22, 2015