Congratulations to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for making it clear that he wants to do what he can to "change the way politics operates in this country" by bringing "decency back to politics".
His willingness to at least try indicates he is listening to the Australian community, which has made it abundantly clear over many years that it is fed up with the combative approach to politics and the negative impact it has on important public policies.
But no matter how hard the Prime Minister tries he cannot change the combative culture on his own. He needs buy-in from every other member of Parliament and the parties to which the vast majority belong. Without their cooperation nothing will change; it needs to as the community is demanding more from its elected public servants than opposition for opposition's sake.
The PM also needs to take care that his own base political instincts do not rise up and sabotage his efforts to lead by example.
Cultural change takes time and requires a multi-pronged approach. Hence reforming the way politics is conducted in this country requires more than simply telling MPs to improve their behaviour. It also involves changing the policies and procedures that have helped to entrench a negative and at times destructive culture.
A good starting point would be reforming question time as it is the public face of Parliament and a significant contributor to the trust deficit between the community and its parliamentarians.
I have not heard one convincing explanation for why 'Dorothy Dixers' should be retained.
A parliamentary committee inquiry was held into question time in 2019 but it suffered the same fate as far too many parliamentary committee inquiries: submissions were called for, public hearings held, a report written and tabled in Parliament and then nothing happened. As a result, the status quo continued.
It will come as no surprise to anyone, including every MP, that the overwhelming majority of submissions to this inquiry expressed negative opinions about the way in which taxpayer funded parliamentarians behave during question time. The negative comments ranged from extreme disappointment to outright disgust with the often stage-managed antics of MPs in the House of Representatives.
It is not only the behaviour of our elected representatives that is condemned. The wasting of valuable time asking "Dorothy Dix" questions is also criticised. I have not heard one convincing explanation for why this procedure should be retained and disappointingly, the new government has said it will remain. The time spent by government backbenchers asking such questions of ministers and that of ministers replying from a prepared script would be better spent allowing independent MPs the opportunity to ask more questions.
Education, a key element of cultural change, is another area in need of reform. Despite holding the power to significantly impact on the lives of every Australian, members of Parliament basically adopt the discredited apprenticeship model for educating MPs. There is significant evidence to support the argument that this model serves to perpetuate an existing culture. It rarely, if ever, challenges it.
If the Prime Minister is serious about reforming the manner in which federal politics is conducted, he should seriously consider championing compulsory initial and ongoing education and training for all members of parliament. I am not referring to the existing induction program which involves a few days spent informing MPs about the administrative aspects of the role they are entrusted to perform. I am talking about in-depth education on the intricacies of the political system in which MPs operate and their obligations to it and the ethical standards that must be applied if they are to serve the public interest before all other interests.
It is hard to think of any other occupation or profession that would tolerate the existing cursory approach to assisting its members to understand the obligations that attach to their role. In many professions, ongoing education involves compulsory continuous professional development. Why should MPs be exempt from such a program? Perhaps they believe they are a special case of instant comprehension or that they can learn through osmosis. Neither is the case.
The selection of candidates is yet another area in need of significant reform. Branch stacking is rife, so too is bequeathing candidature status to a political staffer who is already inculcated into a party culture long before they may become a parliamentarian. These practices do little more than perpetuate a party first mindset.
The increase in the number of political advisers has also contributed to the unacceptable way in which politics is conducted in Australia.
If the Prime Minister wishes to lift standards of behaviour, he should reduce the number of political advisers that swirl around senior politicians in particular (and not just for independents). Unlike senior public servants these advisers are not obliged to offer politically independent advice. The skills and contributions of appointed, highly qualified public servants need to be valued more (as they were in the past)and policies must be framed by advice that is frank and fearless rather than shaped by party interests.
The elephant in the room when it comes to changing political culture is reform of political parties. Inquiries by independent anti-corruption, integrity-promoting bodies have found unethical and at times illegal behaviour by members of political parties who are often more interested in power for power's sake and how it can benefit them and/or the party than serving the public interest.
A truly independent examination of the policies, procedures and culture within every political party, network and group is essential if the way in which politics is conducted is to be vastly improved.
But will the Prime Minister and the majority of MPs be prepared to go down that path? I suspect not.
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