Everyone knows the problem. Our governments are run by politicians who tend to have only ever done one thing in their careers, which is to play politics. With very few exceptions, they are not innovators or entrepreneurs or problem solvers or even community leaders or volunteers. The stunning truth is that most have never held real jobs outside their political party or its patronage network.
This is the biggest political threat to Australia’s future. Nothing else comes close. Complex public decisions about the nation’s future are made by people with arguably the least experience or preparation for making them. Yet business-as-usual in politics and government is hard to buck. Tinkering with minor adjustments won’t change the prevailing culture, but changing the whole political culture seems too big and too hard for most of us to get our heads around.
So what do we do?
In thinking about the problem of career politicians, the unrepresentative character of our political parties, and the stagnation that flows out of parliaments into every walk of life in Australia, there are three reforms that seem pivotal to our ability to change any of this.
1. The first is a requirement that members of parliament have worked for 10 years in a real job. This is easy to do, by making it part of the eligibility requirements to nominate for election to Parliament. There is already a rigorous process in place to determine eligibility based on citizenship which requires documentation from family members, stat decs, etc, which excludes many people. A requirement for a minimum of 10 years in a real job (defined to exclude employment by a politician, party or union) would be no more rigorous or difficult to implement.
At a guess, this would exclude 80% of ALP politicians, 60% of Liberals, and 40% of Green MPs. This would be a good start in getting a more diverse and representative pool of MPs.
But more fundamentally, it is important in recovering the original purpose of representation in a self-governing democracy, which is that a term in parliament to represent your peers is an opportunity for ‘service’, for a limited period of time, as a temporary break from your normal day job. It is not a ‘career’.
2. Because politics is not a ‘career’, we need a limit on the number of terms in parliament that can be served. I favour 3 terms in the lower house, 2 in the upper house, then back to your day job.
3. The third is replacing the notion of a ‘salary’ for MPs with an allowance which recognises the term served is not an open-ended ‘job’ but a limited period of service to your peers.
This is actually what we had in Australia in the heyday of our colonial governments, from 1854 to 1900. These were the years in which our public institutions, infrastructure and culture were established, and these things occurred under the leadership of parliaments which did not pay ‘salaries’ to their members. MPs received an allowance. It was only with the formation of the ALP in 1891 that the push for MP salaries gained sway.
In the debate about why we have wall-to-wall dud politicians, the issue of MP salaries quickly arises and throws everyone off the track. An allowance of $100K pa would deter the duds and attract only those who want to serve for a limited period then get back to their day job.
This problem won’t go away until we take steps to ensure it goes away. Everyone in the country who is not a serving politician has a shared interest in fixing it.
Vern Hughes is the Director of Civil Society Australia, www.civilsociety.org.au.