Keeping the politicians honest

Contrary to public belief, most Members of Parliament go into politics for good and honourable reasons.  They are interested in policy ideas, serving the public and helping to improve their country, state or territory and local community.

However, as Lord Acton once famously said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  He didn’t mean that politicians are “on the take” and lining their pockets with public money, taking bribes and the like.  That is true only of a very few.  What he meant was that quite a few politicians get seduced by power.  They convince themselves that only they and their party have the right policies and can govern competently in the public interest, while their opponents are mostly fools and rogues.

The standard model of Westminster democracy, which is what the Federal government gave the Territory in 1978, is a “winner takes all” system where the party that wins the election every four years exercises all the power and perks of office and makes all the decisions, to the exclusion of the Opposition which as a result spends the next four years doing its darndest to convince the people that they made a mistake and should elect the Opposition instead.  They claim at every opportunity that the government are fools and rogues, and that the Opposition is much better (or has learnt its lesson from last time it was in power).

Because winning the election is a bit like winning a $20 million Sports Lotto draw, NSW Labor fixer Graham Richardson once remarked that in politics you do “whatever it takes” to win.  Richo probably took that maxim further than most, but it’s true to an extent of politicians in general.  In other words, they’re ALL potentially bastards who need to be kept honest.

What can we do to prevent or reduce this tendency to “corruption”? Maybe a different electoral system that isn’t “winner takes all” might help. For example, a system of multi-MLA seats elected by proportional representation as discussed here.  That would be more likely to result in election of some Independent and minor party MLAs so that the winning major party would be forced to discuss, collaborate and compromise rather than ruthlessly exploiting its “winner takes all” majority.

But the conventional answer is that we need a set of institutional checks and balances including:

  • an Upper House of Parliament that the government usually doesn’t control;
  • parliamentary committees overseeing the executive government;
  • freedom of information and whistleblower protection laws;
  • independent Ombudsman and Auditor-General;
  • independent anti-corruption commission;
  • Ministerial Code of Conduct; and
  • judicial and merits review of administrative decisions by government.

The Territory has most but not all of those protections, checks and balances.

*Image courtesy

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