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Deepen the talent pool

Bruce Hawker,
The Australian

July 30, 2008

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A SHRINKING group of people are determining who our parliamentarians will be, and they are less representative of the broader community than at any time in living memory.

This has led to a growing disconnect between our political leaders and the parties that have traditionally nurtured and developed our political leadership.

In the 21st century, we can no longer rely on the Labor, Liberal or National parties to be the only sources of all the best talent for our parliamentary and ministerial positions.

The main parties are simply too small and unrepresentative of the community to be the sole source of the best and brightest legislators we can produce.

Rather than being a criticism of our present crop of parliamentarians, it is an observation about the pool from which they are drawn; a pool simply too small to give us the breadth of life experiences and choice we need in the 21st century.

In fact, Labor's parliamentary leadership is relying more and more on advice from outside the party for its ideas and policies.

This is a good thing but it puts the administrative and parliamentary arms of the party out of alignment with each other. The problem created by this state of affairs is most keenly felt at the executive level.

The ministers are drawn exclusively from the parliament, whose membership is in turn determined by our dwindling rank and file, and a growing group of political careerists.

Political parties have served us well throughout history. I am not arguing that they are finished, they remain the best means by which differing political philosophies or values can be presented to the voting public.

But they are under serious strain.

It has been calculated that the Labor Party had about 370,000 members in 1939. Estimates of its active national membership in 2005 were as low as 7500.

I understand that the story in the Liberal and Nationals parties is much the same. The only time any party's numbers grow these days is when they are being fertilised by a branch stacker seeking preselection.

A recent study of the occupations of federal Labor MPs immediately before they entered parliament was telling. In 1971, only 24 per cent of MPs came directly from an ALP or union job. In 2005, that had grown to 67 per cent of Labor's federal parliamentary population.

In short, as the branches shrink the strength of the political careerist grows.

If we are to deepen the political gene pool, we will need to find ways of broadening parliamentary representation.

This does not mean severing union ties. Their major role in the success of the Kevin 07 campaign is testimony to their importance.

In large part, it was this ability to appeal to a broad cross-section of voters that delivered a Rudd government.

One of Rudd's strengths is his ability to bring people together and look for common ground. His ongoing enthusiasm for reaching out to the public through consultations such as the 2020 Summit and community cabinets is giving Labor an image of engagement with, and appreciation of, the views of people who are not party affiliates or Labor faithful.

Only last week the Prime Minister appointed former Nationals leader, Tim Fischer, as our next ambassador to the Holy See.

Not so many years ago it was easy to typecast the Labor Party as Left and the Coalition as Right, and their economic policies reflected those opposing descriptions. It is harder today to define them this way. Labor is less a party of ideology than the Liberals. Working-class voters are now quite conservative, and the middle-class inner suburbs always have the largest concentration of Green voters.

The world has changed, the parliamentary leadership has changed and it is looking externally for policy input.

I believe something has to be done to put some balance back into the process of identifying and appointing our ministers.

Most of our ministers do a sterling job, but their background is simply not diverse enough.

In other jurisdictions the question of appointing the best ministers available - regardless of where they come from - is nowhere near as vexed as it is in Australia.

What can be done? First, we can look at how other jurisdictions appoint their ministers and see what we can learn.

Britain is one example.

When Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair last year, he took significant steps to create what he called a government "of all the talents". Membership of the Labour Party would no longer be a prerequisite to a ministerial post, nor would a long stint in parliament.

In a move described by the conservative press as a coup, Brown appointed Digby Jones to the House of Lords and immediately made him Minister for Trade Promotion. Jones had never been a member of the Labour Party.

Since then, Brown has made a number of appointments in the same fashion, including Alan West, a former Navy chief, as Security Minister; and prominent surgeon Ara Dazi as minister in charge of improving patient care.

In South Australia, premier Mike Rann has gone further than any leader in dealing creatively and constitutionally with this issue. Rann has appointed two non-parliamentarians to the executive committee of cabinet.

Rann's pioneering developments should be the start of a constitutional change to allow Australian prime ministers and premiers to choose some of their ministers from outside parliament.

Given that some of the greatest democracies in the world allow their parliamentary leaders to appoint some ministers, why should the Australian commonwealth, states and territories be denied this injection of talent?

I can see little wrong and a lot of good in a system that would allow the prime minister or premiers to appoint up to 20 per cent of their ministry from outside parliament.

At some time in the not too distant future, we will revisit the question of a republic. That will require a referendum. If we have another look at how we are governed why should we confine ourselves entirely to the question of who should be our head of state?

Why don't we have a series of constitutional conventions - as our forefathers did in the 1880s and '90s - to see how suited our executive is to meeting the challenges of government in the 21st century?

Bruce Hawker is managing director of public affairs company Hawker Britton and was chief of staff to former NSW premier Bob Carr for nine years.

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