8 July 2015

Of gene pools and the "real world"

You can easily despair over the gene pool of politicians. I am not the only one doing it. It's a common concern and there was a seminar on just this topic the other day. The speakers were two Johns, Colvin and Uhr. It amused everyone when JU was referred to as John II. It was appropriate: he was much more interesting. The session was organised by U3A and COTA: for the young of heart. It was obvious there was considerable knowledge and experience when the questions came around. JII was just one indicator.

John Colvin spoke first. He's a company director and AFR writer and obviously well educated (he told us, Oxford Masters, no less. BTW, did you know that Oxford automatically upgrades some bachelor degrees to Masters "seven years after matriculation, without further examination, upon the payment of a nominal fee" from Degrees of the University of Oxford, in Wikipedia) and experienced in discussions with pollies and the like. He suggested some sensible approaches to ensuring better business practice and awareness in Parliament. Ensuring us of the excellence and experience endowed by 10 years on a Board or in a Senior Exec position in business. Recounting how he'd guided a young chap with academic quals but little experience and the obvious value of his input. Lots of stats of how pollies are from the political class or unions (good, some evidence!). The problems of gotcha journalism, the decreasing appeal for entering politics, career and location issues. How no current APS secretaries have 10+ years senior business experience (ie, Boards or Snr Exec). How the new Treasury head comes with high level banking experience [trust your banker, I thought, musing on this morning's SMH front page: "IOOF hid suspicions" in SMH, 8 July 2015, p.1, with subheading "Allegations of misconduct went unreported" and a string of recent Australian and international bank improprieties]. Fixes included better education for parliamentarians (some science education, perhaps?), selection criteria, transparency of selection (good!), even a change of the constitution (s.64) to allow external appointments somehow. Wow, constitutional change! Now, that's thinking big. Like granting peerages to experts in the UK Lords. It's just our democracy that gets in the way of this. But I jest. He has something here. I, too, fear for decision making amongst out pollies. Just look at our response to climate change!

Then John II, John Uhr. Here was academic clarity in spades. He presented a list of possible actions that would improve the gene pool issue, although none of itself would fix it. 1/ Senate can act like the Lords, eg, when Bob Carr was brought is an Foreign Minister (long shot here, I thought); 2/ Recognise partners (congrats to Abbott for the meeting that very day with Indigenous reps and utilising different arrangements); 3/ Political parties are funded by the public so conditions and responsibilities to the public are appropriate; 4/ Parliament could sit more often (UK sits 2x Canada; Canada sits 2x Australia) and could use its time better, eg, question time with all ministers on a business program and no patsy questions from the Government side; 5/ Speakers could attempt maximum independence (it has been done more successfully!!!); 6/ Introduce a Parliamentary code of conduct (Howard had one for ministers and heads rolled until it was removed/changed, I don't remember which); 7/ It's a "crying shame" that there's no ethics commissioner in Federal Parliament; 8/ Expand Parliament, pollies are too busy or too close to ministership so wary of upsetting power; 9/ Despite rag-tag parties, the Senate offers more ideas and options, "I'd rather have more Xenophons than fewer"; 9/ Yes to exchanges with the private sector but there's "something in APS professionalism to be protected"; 10/ Media can be too cosy with Parliament, need to get diversity of examination and input from "outside the tent"; 11/ Checks and balances! Introduce a Federal ICAC.

Questions were on increased politicisation of the APS; doctrines of responsiveness to Government and non-supporters seen as obstacles to be pushed out of the way. Independence of Parliamentary speakers; Slipper as one of the best speakers (perhaps a surprise, but a common observation); Labor speakers before and after Slipper "went to great effort" to be independent, but now... Appointments of experts to the Lords; slower more deliberate decision-making; appointments as good or self-serving. Growing presidentialism as "public grandeur" and an international trend, even as the precursor, the US President, displays little power before Congress. Who protects individual freedoms in Australia? You could imagine there were different views here! Someone suggested Gillian Triggs; John Colvin suggested a role for the AG (in this case, George Brandis). The unicameral NZ Parliament, although John Uhr identified some off-ignored aspects (incl. NZ not a Federation, proportional representation by single members and top-up lists, indigenous seats). So many lawyers and no scientists in Parliament as a defect (noting Thatcher had studied Chemisty). And finally short parliamentary terms.

All interesting. I've got a position and I don't deny it, but I'll vote for the informed and broadminded musings of academia before the "real world" (=corporate friendly) view. The supposed "real world" just seemed so self-referential and blinkered and unaware of it.

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