Friday, August 07, 2015

Why not include ordinary citizens on the MP remuneration review panel?

Australia's Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has now announced the review panel for MP remuneration expenses, and in my view it's close to becoming another missed opportunity to improve government engagement, accountability and transparency with the community.

The panel will consist of five 'eminent' individuals. Two will be former politicians (one Labor and one Liberal), one a business person and two will be former senior public servants (David Tune, former Secretary of the Department of Finance, and John Conde, Head of the Remuneration Tribunal).

In other words, the usual suspects - members of the major political parties (who are most under the shadow of the expenses issues), a friendly CEO or senior business advisor (who knows what side his - and it will be a him - bread is buttered on) and two public sector insiders who have worked closely with current and former politicians.

On the five person panel, there's apparently no room for ordinary citizens, the involvement of a citizen's panel or anyone unconnected to politicians who is actually concerned or enraged by the way MPs are using their entitlements or is concerned about the falling legitimacy and credibility of our political system.

Of course such participants would likely be more 'unruly'. They'd not be members of the cozy Canberra club which decides what is good for citizens (often based on mistaken, shallow or lobbyist influenced impressions of public sentiment). They'd not understand the rules of the game, the way in which things MUST be done in order to satisfy the egos and perceptions of those on the top of the political pile.

Participants from outside the Canberra insider club may not even share the group think of what is appropriate for politicians to spend, and could even disagree with the 'eminent' appointees on what is appropriate expenditure by politicians.

Of course the Prime Minister's hand-picked 'eminent' panel will be thorough and comprehensive in its review. It will consult citizens - allowing people to provide their views. And then it will weigh those views and provide its recommendations, based on their own filters, future career ambitions, relationships and experiences of being within the 'club'.

The upside of this insider approach is that the review will be less harsh on politicians, that the 'eminent' insiders understand the needs of politics and provide limited restrictions on politician entitlements, allowing politicians more freedom to rely on the public purse rather than personal or party finances.

The risk for politicians is that the public don't feel the review recommendations go far enough, that traditional media and social media continue to pursue senior politicians for their expenditure, that citizens don't feel they have been appropriately included in the process. The outcome of this would be further erosion of trust in both Australia's political system and in our public sector.

This risk could be partially or wholly mitigated through including ordinary citizens as part of the eminent panel, or creating a citizen's panel to oversee and support or reject the eminent panel's review.

Citizens could be selected through nomination or random selection from the electoral role - our court jury model is one approach that could be used. This group should, of course, be paid for their time and not expected to donate it for free - Iceland's Constitutional process, where they paid citizens their travel expenses and the salary of an MP for the days they worked is a good model to emulate to reflect the value of citizen involvement and the cost of their lost time.

In this approach, citizens would decide whether the review went far enough, not political insiders who may stand to gain from lighter recommendations.

There's a risk for politicians in taking this approach. They may end up with tighter restrictions on entitlements. It could be uncomfortable for parties struggling to raise the funds they need to operate, or costly for politicians' own finances.

However it would be far more likely to meet public expectations, to help rebuild credibility in political parties and allow politicians more certainty that something they spend won't haunt them in years to come. It could even provide a huge boost to the Coalition's re-election chances by demonstrating how the current government was genuine about listening to citizens and governing for all Australians.

There's still time for the Prime Minister to shape the form of the remuneration review, to take a bold step to respect citizens and embed greater accountability and transparency in the review process.

It's not a missed opportunity yet, but if it becomes one, the consequences could further damage Australia's democratic credibility and institutions.

1 comment:

  1. Now that the opportunity has passed to get an 'ordinary' citizen on the review, I'd like to suggest an alternative approach. That approach is for a 'citizen-led' review of the remuneration system.

    Instead of the typical approach of saying 'the government' should do something but rueing the lack of community engagement and letting the insiders maintain the status quo, albeit it with different names and words, another way could be for five 'ordinary' individuals to get together and conduct a parallel review.
    The 'community team' would use the same terms of reference and same time frame for the review, but perhaps with a bit more common sense and balance. They would present the final report at the same time but instead of it being 'considered' by government before its public release, it would be made available to the public immediately for further discussion (and input if needed.)
    This may go some way to keeping the focus and pressure of government - sorry political parties - to actually make real changes in this area.

    Who would be these 'ordinary' people be? They would need to have some level of public profile, exposure and experience to ensure both credibility of review and outcomes. I could think of 50 people from across the spectrum of society, so could others.

    This could be supported by a number of technology approaches to gather input, sift and sort views form everywhere in the country.

    Stepping back from this particular issue, why isn't there more 'citizen-led' actions like this. Why do we trust 'the government' when the track record is less than perfect in this regard? (How many recommendations haven't been implemented?) WE have the tools to gather information from every part of the community.

    Now, the hardest question, what next?