We haven't got the numbers
A new report card on the state of democracy in the ACT recommends a renamed National Capital Legislative Assembly sit with at least seven ministers.
The report, released in the same week that Chief Minister Katy Gallagher announced a major cabinet reshuffle and welcomed new minister Chris Bourke, was highly critical of successive ACT parliaments for failing to work together to bring about an increase in Legislative Assembly numbers.
It warned five ministers was ''grossly inadequate for the complexities of state and local government in the 21st century''.
Commissioned by the Standing Committee on Administration and Procedure, Professor of Public Administration at the University of Canberra John Halligan wrote a 25-page report measuring the performance of the three branches of government in the ACT against the Commonwealth's Latimer House Principles, a report into standards of governance according to the principles of the separation of power.
Halligan's report found that overall the ACT has a robust government and the three branches of government in the ACT, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, perform strongly against Latimer House Principles. But there are a few shortfalls and there ''is considerable potential for improving the quality of governance in a number of respects''.
In a series of damming findings Professor Halligan recommended increasing the size of the assembly to 25 members, improving the timeliness of justice after citing unacceptable delays in the ACT Supreme Court, installing the Auditor-General and Ombudsman as officers of Parliament and more use of assembly committees to oversee new legislation.
Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and ACT Government expert John Warhurst said most of the issues raised were perennial problems.
''If I was in the ACT Government I would think I had gotten a big tick but that's not to say there were no issues raised,'' Warhurst said.
He said as a general rule Australians did not want more politicians.
''It will give more fuel to some debates like changes to the Self-Government Act and [Halligan] does give parties a kick in the pants about numbers.
''The only way they are ever going to do it is to get united.'' He said the Legislative Assembly under-represents Canberrans and this raises concern about representative democracy.
''[Halligan] was clear he wanted more ministers and the only way to do that was to get a larger assembly - but he doesn't have any ideas about how you would sell that to the general electorate.''
The Assembly can choose to increase the number of members but it is subject to a Commonwealth regulation. There have been 17 members of the Legislative Assembly since self-government but in that time the population has increased by almost 100,000 people.
Halligan said the ACT Government was stunted.
''It is perhaps quite remarkable that despite the consistency in the recommendations from a succession of reports, nothing has transpired,'' he said.
The administration expert said the Chief Minister and the Attorney-General Simon Corbell were particularly overworked before Bourke's elevation to a ministry.
''Five was bad enough - four was even worse. And I just couldn't envisage anything less than seven being appropriate. I'm pleased the minister has decided to act.'' It's not the first time there has been debate about increasing the size of the Legislative Assembly. The Hawke review favoured 25 members, which is also the size of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly which serves a much smaller population of 230,000, and this was also the optimum figure recommended in the Review of Governance of the Australian Capital Territory in 1998.
Halligan blames party political self-interest for the lack of action and said the outcome was poor government.
''Ministers are stretched beyond their capacity to cover the span of responsibilities of an Australian state government.''
Redistributing electoral boundaries and adding members provides benefits to different political parties and they cannot agree on a new model.
The Liberal member of the committee Vicki Dunne was dismissive of the report's findings.
''Adherence to the Latimer House Principles is a worthy goal for any legislature, but this alone will not deliver what the core business of the ACT Government should be, which is affordable housing and proper municipal services,'' Dunne said.
Former minister and Labor member of the Standing Committee on Administration and Procedure John Hargreaves said he could call for more MLAs without bias or self-interest, as he was not going to contest the next election.
''From the perspective of a former minister it is very, very difficult,'' Hargreaves said.
He said Bourke's ministry appointment had been eagerly awaited.
''The redistribution of portfolios has come as an enormous relief to those ministers carrying a load on four people, but it's still way too much for those people.''
Bourke joined the Government's ranks in June after winning a countback for Jon Stanhope's seat.
He became the fifth minister and the territory's first indigenous cabinet member, taking the Education, Corrections, Industrial Relations and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs portfolios this week.
Chief Minister Katy Gallagher will add the Territory and Municipal Services job to her responsibilities in Health.
The new arrangements lighten the workload of Simon Corbell, who will lose responsibility for the territory's prison and for the Department of Territory and Municipal Services, the labour-intensive ''roads, rates and rubbish'' department.
Joy Burch added Gaming and Racing to her existing portfolio duties.
Halligan viewed the dual and triple portfolio demands of ACT ministers as conflicts of interest and Hargreaves said the workload almost killed him.
''I think the time for reform is now because we can't do state and municipal service with the amount we've got now. The community is not getting the government they deserve with numbers so small. The harder we work a small number of people the more prone they are going to be to exhaustion and they will not be able to give us, regardless of their party affiliations, the level of service that we're expecting them to.''
He said if the public service worked as hard as ministers they would be depressed.
''It gave me a heart attack and I would not like to see any of my colleagues go through that. A parliament of 17 is just too small and we haven't been able to agree on a number because people have been bringing politics into parliamentarianism,'' he said.
The small size of the Assembly also affects the vigour and timeliness of the committee process.
Halligan said a few more Bills should go through the committee process.
''It seems inconceivable that the ACT, despite its scale, does not have some Bills of comparable moment to similar jurisdictions,'' he said.
''I thought there was considerable potential for it to be developed. But improving the committee system is reliant on increasing the size of the Assembly itself.''
The seventh ACT Legislative Assembly has referred eight out of 173 bills, or about 5per cent, to committees between 2008 and May this year, while federally the Senate, which has been the main house of legislative committee review for the Australian Parliament, has reported on more than 80 Bills in each of the recent financial years.
In the ACT every Auditor-General's report is automatically referred to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts but Halligan said there was a significant lag - about a year - between the release of an Auditor-General's report and consideration by the committee.
''This means that the committee is inclined to run four to six reports behind.
''The question arises of how durable are issues raised in AG reports.'' The report found proper resourcing of statutory officers would promote their independence and recommended both the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman become Officers of the Parliament and recommended the Assembly be allowed to set its own budget.
Halligan said the name change to the National Capital Legislative Assembly would better reflect the dual roles of local and state government services.
''There is benefit in reflecting on the name of the Legislative Assembly because of the city-state nature of the ACT and the recent municipalisation of the administrative structure. This could involve de-emphasising the word 'legislative' and giving prominence to the civic side.''
Speaker and chairman of the Standing Committee on Administration and Procedure Shane Rattenbury said some of the recommendations, including greater independence for the Auditor-General and plans for a new collaborative committee, were already under way.
''On behalf of the committee, I commissioned the report,'' Rattenbury said.
''It does identify areas for improvement and what will happen now is I will be listing the report on the agenda for the next Standing Committee on Administration and Procedure meeting.
''We'll now sit down and go through that report and consider how to move forward.''