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Government of the people, by the powerbrokers, for the mates

Ted Mack is credited by Wikipedia as “the only person ever to have been elected and re-elected as an independent to local, state and federal government in Australia”. While Mayor of North Sydney (1980-88) Mack sold the mayoral car and set out to improve accountability. In 1981 he was elected to the seat of North Sydney in the NSW Legislative Assembly. He served until 1988 retiring days before he would have qualified for a parliamentary pension, as a statement against the excesses of public political office. In 1990 he won the federal seat of North Sydney defeating the Liberal party incumbent. As an independent he opposed the Gulf war, the sale of Qantas and the nuclear industry.

This is an excerpt from a speech he presented in October last year titled The State of the Federation. It’s long but worth it. In fact, I would highly recommend reading the whole speech.

“In 1992 the former secretary to the Office of Governor-General, Sir David Smith, wrote: There is much that is wrong with the way this nation is governed and administered: never before have we had so many Royal Commissions and other inquiries; never before have we had so many office-holders and other figures in, or facing the prospect of prison; never before have the electors registered their dissatisfaction with the political process by returning so many independent and minor party candidates to Parliament.

In the Mackay Report of July 2001, social researcher Hugh Mackay stated: Australia’s contempt for federal politics and its leaders has plumbed new depths. If it (the Mackay Report) was a family newspaper, we would scarcely be able to print the things Australian’s are saying about their politicians … In the 22 year history of the Mackay Report political attitudes have never been quite as negative as this.

On 16 June 2013 in The Australian newspaper Tony Fitzgerald QC (who chaired the 1987 Queensland Royal Commission) wrote an article The Body Politic is Rotten. He stated: There are about 800 politicians in Australia’s parliaments. According to their assessments of each other, that quite small group includes role models for lying, cheating, deceiving, “rorting”, bullying, rumour-mongering, back-stabbing, slander, “leaking”, “dog-whistling”, nepotism and corruption.”

He states in effect, that the dominance of the major parties by little known and unimpressive faction leaders who have effective control of Australia’s democracy and destiny… might be tolerable if the major parties acted with integrity but they do not. Their constant battles for power are venal, vicious and vulgar.

Over the last 30 years there has been a plethora of minor and major scandals, misuse of most forms of parliamentary allowances, interstate travel, overseas travel, telephone allowances, comcars, taxis, air charters and stamp allowances in addition to the revelations of major Royal Commissions. It seems that almost anything can and has been rorted. The number of resignations of ministers of state and federal parliaments shows that something is wrong with the selection process or the talent pool. One problem is that the ability to become a cabinet minister has often nothing to do with ability to be a minister.

The 2010-13 Federal Parliament saw the major parties virtually eliminate any real form of democratic debate substituting little but character assassination of opponents. It was a three-year election campaign of personal abuse and fear mongering. It was debased even further with aggressive bullying by the media and special interests at unprecedented levels.

The same period saw both state and federal governments pandering to special interests allowing massive increases in the promotion of gambling and alcohol. Pandering to the development and mining industries and the seemingly endless privatisation of public assets often creating private monopolies, continued irrespective of public opinion

The last decade has also seen a substantial escalation in the endless commonwealth-state “turf wars”. This seems to bedevil almost all main areas of government activities such as health, education, transport, agriculture and water policy. This massive overlap of functions results in huge increases in bureaucracy. The expansion of government, particularly the costs of expanding political staff and salaries, seems to be in inverse proportion to the levels of public satisfaction.

Recent increases bring the basic salary of the Prime Minister to $507,000 compared to the American President at $400,000, and the English Prime Minister at 142,000 pounds. Salary packages for MPs have escalated at federal level with steady creation of new positions and extensions of fringe benefits. So much so that only a handful of backbench members of the government receive the lowest salary package. State governments have followed suit.

Salary packages for Federal government members now range from around $325,000 to some $475,000/annum for ministers. However extremely generous superannuation schemes can effectively double that depending on age at retirement. For example, recently retired after nine years in the NSW Upper House, Eric Roozendaal aged 51 receives a pension of $120,000. This is indexed to future politicians’ salaries. Given his life expectancy, this works out at around $500,000/year for his nine years of office. Together with his annual salary he was rewarded with almost $1,000,000 for each year in parliament. This is for a job that the officials of political parties can bestow on people with no experience or qualification.

The ten ex-Prime Ministers and Governors-General each averaged around $500,000 a year in public costs for 2010-11 or around $10,000 per week in retirement but the annual appropriation available for the current Governor-Generals’ office is approaching $13 million.

Over the last 30 years politicians’ staff has increased dramatically. At federal level there are now some 17 hundred personal staff to ministers and members. The states probably account for over two thousand more. Add to this the direct political infiltration of federal-state public services and quangos with hundreds more jobs for the boys and girls, there is now a well-established political class.

This has provided the political parties with a career path for members. In many cases it often produces skilled, partisan, “whatever it takes” warriors with a richly rewarded life through local state and federal governments to a well-funded retirement. Unfortunately while this career path, as Tony Fitzgerald states, does include principled well-motivated people … it also attracts professional politicians with little or no general life experience and unscrupulous opportunists, unburdened by ethics, who obsessively pursue power, money or both.

Since the 1990s there have been endless calls by federal and state government for increased efficiency, no wage increases unless matched with productivity, for restructuring, downsizing and deregulation all in the name of increased competitiveness and facing the international community in the 21st century. Many thousands of jobs have disappeared particularly those in federal and state bureaucracies at middle and lower incomes and in the general workforce.

Now there is little doubt some restructuring of the country is necessary but it is strange that the political-administrative structure and the legal system are somehow excluded from any need for reform. Given both the massive costs and level of public dissatisfaction. It is surprising that while the media regularly exposes major and minor political misdemeanours, it rarely proposes any serious need for reform let alone suggests possible solutions.

Our many publicly funded schools of Government and Politics also seem to be largely silent on the need for political or constitutional reform with some individual honourable exceptions.

In an effort to increase public confidence in the political system a huge amount of legislation has been passed over recent years to ostensibly promote such things as open government, public participation and reduced reliance on private donations. Effectively the open government legislation has mainly meant freedom from information. Even this year the Labor government and the then opposition quietly combined to sneak through legislation that completely exempted the three government departments that supervise the running of the Federal Parliament from answering Freedom of Information requests.

As for public participation, virtually all government decisions are made in private by small groups of people who are in many cases not in parliament. Public funding of elections was first introduced into NSW in 1981 and federally in 1984 on the basis that it would reduce private donations. Neville Wran presented the Bill and concluded his speech by saying this Bill will remove the risk of parties selling political favours and declares to the world that the great political parties of New South Wales are not up for sale.

Since then an escalating “arms war” of election spending has developed with public funding steadily increasing and private funding increasing even faster.

The taxpayer cost of federal elections has increased from $38 million in 1984 to $161 million in 2010. Of the latter $53 million was public funding to parties and candidates. Currently, in spite of massive increases, public funding is less than 20 per cent of about $350 million total election spending. We are now effectively the second best democracy money can buy.

There is an overwhelming need to reduce overall election spending. The United States democracy has been largely destroyed by the huge amount of money dedicated to this purpose and Australia is accelerating down the same tollway. Maximum spending limits must be applied to all elections. At present freedom of speech is only effectively available to the rich and those using other people’s money. The Electoral Commission should produce booklets setting out candidates’ biographies and policies as was done for the 1999 Constitutional Convention elections with all advertising banned.

Political parties as they have developed over the last century seem like two mafia families seeking control of the public purse for distribution to themselves, supporters, the special interests who fund them and for buying votes at the next election. Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. They are effectively unregulated private organisations but they now control government treasuries.

When they unite with common interests, for example funding themselves, the public are mostly powerless except on the rare occasions when public outrage is too great. For example the attempted 60 million dollar virtually secret increase in public funding for the parties earlier this year.

Both parties have rightly suffered huge reductions in membership over the last few years almost in direct proportion to the centralisation of power in their organisations. Public election funding and huge allowances have reduced the party’s need for workers for elections. Candidates now can rely on direct mail, general advertising and paid help.

By centralising power as Tony Fitzgerald puts it: The public interest is subordinated to the pursuit of power, party objectives and personal ambitions, sometimes including the corrupt acquisition of financial benefit. Branch stacking has become endemic and as Fitzgerald says “The parties gift electorates to family connections, malleable party hacks and mediocre apparatchiks”.

The views of people like retired judge Tony Fitzgerald QC, Hugh Mackay, possibly Australia’s leading social researcher and Sir David Smith, Official Secretary to five Governor-Generals, should be taken seriously. They have a long and rare experience of government in Australia. Their views are considered and well founded. They demand examination of the many problems of our system of government in order to establish directions for reform.

Today the Constitution is not only obsolete but is an expensive handicap to the wellbeing of Australian society. In essence it was a parochial compromise between the States based on an amalgamation of the British system and the American Constitution. We followed English parliamentary practice but without accepting English traditional restraints. For example in Westminster the Speaker is fair, in Australia fair Speakers are quickly dispensed with. The Government must always win. This is why Question Time in Australia often descends to a schoolboy rabble. We have a system where the opposition almost always loses and has virtually no role in legislation. This forces members to extremes to magnify differences – often reaching levels of mindless partisanship only seen at football matches.

The two-party system of government and opposition where the “winner-takes-all” has inevitably resulted in mutual denigration with little or no sensible parliamentary debate. Frankly, in Australian parliaments opposition is a form of political death. The thought of it colours all decision-making. It entrenches the philosophy of “whatever it takes”. It even means less salary for the members of the opposition – shock, horror.

The election of governments by parliamentary members in the absence of fixed terms, means a rigid parliamentary discipline must be enforced to achieve stability. Extreme partisanship takes over and the public interest is irrelevant. Parliament can never be a check on executive government except in rare situations. The domination of parliament by Executive Government effectively means it is an “elected dictatorship”, except in the rare cases of hung parliaments.

The two-party system stifles ideas, debate and decision-making within the parties. The faction system often ensures minority views triumph within both party rooms. In the case of the government, the minority view will then be taken into parliament and become an even greater minority law. Hence the shocking derailing of democratic government in NSW in 2007-11. Voting within parties is often based on what faction members belong to, who wants to become or stay a minister or who wants to be party leader. What the electors think is at best a secondary consideration. Party members almost always follow the party line and are often voting against what they really believe or what their electorates would want

After 112 years the functions of commonwealth and state governments as well as the financial arrangements are in chaos. It has resulted in endless dispute, waste and inefficiency between state and federal governments and their bureaucracies. A century of debate and confusion over these issues shows that these problems are impossible to resolve without a rewrite of the constitution.

Electing parliaments by voting for single members then have the elected members elect a government is a democratic travesty kept alive by politicians, academia and the press. The single-member electorate system results in only accidental relationship between seats won and the total actual votes. For example, the 2012 election in Queensland produced the bizarre result that the state government won 88 per cent of seats with 49.7 per cent of the vote. The other 50.3 per cent of voters were rewarded with 12 per cent of the seats.

This system also largely eliminates minorities unless their vote is concentrated in particular electorates. That is why such parties as the Australian Democrats and Greens get almost no lower house seats with often twice the vote of the National Party, while the latter generally receives around ten members and three or four ministers and Deputy Prime Minister.

So why do we keep the single-member electorate system – because only the major parties can change it. But why should they? It helps preserve the two-party duopoly. It largely prevents the election of third party candidates. An incumbent lower house federal candidate today has effectively $400,000 worth of facilities and money to ward off challengers. Major parties can transfer a million or so extra dollars from safe seats if they really want to stop an outsider. It also enables the government parties to “pork barrel” specific seats. It is hardly an equal opportunity for challengers whether they are individuals or new parties.

The Senate is also fundamentally flawed as a democratic organisation. In each election 42.3 per cent of the vote will elect 50 per cent of senators in each state for a start. Then there is the voting system that allows parties to transfer preferences effectively without the voters’ knowledge. We now have some five senators with no democratic legitimacy all because the major parties are so venal and are prepared to treat voters as mushrooms to obtain power. It is to Australia’s shame that at least 99 per cent of voters at the recent elections had no idea where their Senate vote really went.

The unequal state and arbitrary territory representation is fundamentally undemocratic. It cannot be democratically acceptable to have for example, one Hobart vote to be equal to 14 Tenterfield votes or one Darwin vote worth almost three Bendigo votes when voting on issues that affect all Australians equally.

As things stand Australian democracy consists of voting in a rigged system every few years to elect others to make decisions for us. The voters mostly know little or nothing about most candidates after the “faceless men” and “branch stackers” have had their way. We are rarely permitted to have any say on policies. Cabinet ministers, premiers and prime ministers come and go without reference to us. We go to war and sign treaties without even our parliament having a say let alone the public. When the major parties agree, as they do when funding themselves, and their mutual friends, we have no say whatsoever. It is a pretty minimalist democracy and a long way from Abraham Lincoln’s Government of the people, BY the people, for the people.

We seem to have achieved “Government of the people, by the powerbrokers, for the mates.”


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  1. Brady

    What a great article, thank you very much for the read

  2. john921fraser


    @Kaye Lee

    Did you know that when newman became Lord Mayor of Brisbane he had a desk bought into the Lord Mayors Office for his wife to work from.

    Side by side, doing "business" for Ratepayers ?

    Her father is a developer …. and he has a development north of Brisbane that backs onto a National Park … and when newman became Premier laws were changed to allow more access to National Parks.

    I'm wondering why Uriah Heep from the Sydney Institute went so ballistic last night on Lateline.

    The ties to Di Girolamo go all across the board and through all the Eastern State Liberals.

    So what more is to come ?

  3. Kaye Lee

    Be interesting to know what part if any Chris Hartcher is playing in all this.

    Premier Barry O’Farrell demanded Mr Hartcher, his energy minister, quit cabinet after his Central Coast and parliamentary offices were raided by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over an investigation into alleged illegal donations…

    ICAC is understood to be investigating claims tens of thousands of dollars in illegal donations were raised from developers and others for a slush fund by one of Mr Hartcher’s former staffers in a scandal which has drawn in fellow Central Coast Liberal MPs Chris Spence and Darren Webber

    The inquiry has heard allegations that Mr Di Girolamo had arranged for AWH to make ‘‘regular payments’’ to a slush fund linked to Mr Hartcher in exchange for favourable treatment from the minister.

  4. john921fraser


    @Kaye Lee

    To this observer it looks like payback from Hartcher.

    "We" can only hope they take to each other with a royal vengeance.

    The next ICAC inquiry starts towards the end of the month and no doubt the Liberals fix it boys are on the job.

  5. Greg O

    Good article, and you are correct that Lincoln or any of the US Founders would not like what they would see in either the US or Australia right now. The professional politician is taken for granted now. I am not sure what it is exactly that you are suggesting as a solution, but perhaps one improvement might be term limits. In the 19th century, no-one even considered the possibility of a politician being in office for up to 50 years (Robert Byrd in the US). So they didn’t consider a need to limit the terms of politicians. Given the trends as outlined in this study by the Congressional Research Service in the US, perhaps it is time to consider term limiting pollies to reduce the influence of the professional pollies, and to get some people with real life experience back into government.

    This extract from that publication demonstrates the rise of the professional politician:

    “During the 19th century, the average service of Representatives and Senators remained roughly
    constant, with little or no change over time; the average years of service was slightly higher for
    the first half of the century than during the second. During the late 19th and through the 20th
    century, the average years of service for Senators steadily increased, from an average of just
    under five years in the early 1880s to an average of just over 13 years in recent Congresses.
    Similarly, the average years of service of Representatives increased from just over four years in
    the first two Congresses of the 20th century to an average of approximately 10 years in the three
    most recent Congresses.
    The average years of service for Members of the 113th Congress, as of January 3, 2013, when the
    Congress convened, was 9.1 years for the House and 10.2 years for the Senate. The average years
    of service for Members of the 112th Congress, as of January 5, 2011, when the Congress
    convened, was 9.8 years for the House and 11.4 years for the Senate.
    Two underlying factors appear to influence variation over time in the average years of service for
    Members of Congress: the decision of sitting Members whether or not to seek election to the next
    Congress, and the success rate of Members who seek election to the next Congress. In addition,
    short-term variation in average service is affected by the individual service tenures of Members
    who do not return for the following Congress.
    Observed increases in the proportion of Members seeking re-election and decreases in the
    proportion of Members defeated for re-election conform with previous scholarly assessments of
    congressional history, which largely conclude that during the early history of Congress, turnover
    in membership was frequent and resignations were commonplace, and that during the 20th
    century, congressional careers lengthened as turnover decreased and Congress became more

    How about 4 consecutive terms maximum?

  6. Kaye Lee

    We need more radical change than that but it’s an option to consider. I am putting together a few thoughts. Might turn into my next article. Professional pollies, two party system, factions, political donations and advertising, jobs for the boys – all are of concern.

  7. mars08

    Kaye Lee, I’d suggest that the electorate’s susceptibility to misinformation is also a major concern.

  8. Maureen

    Thank you Kay Lee. The revolving door of vested interests is a great threat to our democracy. It gives hope that, at last, the LNP are being called to account.

  9. scaper...

    A very good article bordering on a treatise. Divide and rule comes to mind but unfortunately being an apathetic nation the song remains the same.

  10. Kaye Makovec

    Question. Now O’Farrell has resigned does he still have to answer to the ICAC if more corruption surfaces?

  11. Don Winther

    Great article Kaye Lee, Thanks. This is what I have been waiting for you to write. I knew you would do it justice. Always love your work. 🙂 I’m smiling again. How do we get this in every Australians letter box? How much do these politicians charge us to sell our country while we work our arses off until we are 70 to pay for them? We are just making Millionaires and they just think we are IDIOTS because we are. 800 politicians x $400,000ave/ year = $320 million wages not including the 67% old boys superannuation, there politician pensions, expenses and entitlements( not like the SPC/ Holden production line entitlements ) travel and etc. You said there are a few thousand more all grabbing that sort of money. I would say the average Australian could only name 3 or 4 politicians. How much are these guys costing us. The Aged Pension has gotta go because we need more Millionaires. Thanks, Don.

  12. Paul Raymond Scahill

    Much of what Ted Mack says makes sense. It would be appropriate for all political parties to restrict all members, both upper house and lower house to a maximum of three (3) terms, that way at least we would get rid of the deadwood, and god only knows there is plenty of that. At least we would get fresh ideas on a regular basis. The selection process should also be altered to ensure that the best people were selected by the people in the respective electorates. Furthermore all politicians should be entitled to superannuation commensurate with that available to every working person. In addition there should be nothing available like the polly-pedal or overseas weddings et al so far as extra benefits. However, the one most redeeming factor in politicians remuneration should be a considerable reduction in salary remuneration and the forgoing of all free air/rail/road trips both within Australia and Overseas. All past politicians including P.M.s and the like should be granted say six (6) months in which to tidy up their affairs, not to include any so-called study trips or pleasure trips to assist with making their work conditions at least a little more like the rest of us. Also they should have to work until 70 years of age at some form of work like they would have us all do. It has been too easy and far too costly under the present system and it is about time we all did the heavy lifting, as a very knowledgable politician once said. Perhaps then and only then will we get politicians who actually work for the good of this country and its citizens.

  13. Greg O

    The same State I referred to above has the highest standard of living (based on poverty rate), the lowest teen pregnancy rate, the 3rd highest health quality, the lowest tax burden, the highest percentage of independent voters (40%), and their Constitution is one of four States that protects the rights of citizens to a revolution! How good is that? There are of course some misguided weapons rights as well, but it is in America, and they could be forgiven for that because they know no better. “Live Free or Die”.

  14. Gilly

    Any efforts of Ted Mack, Peter Andren, Tony Windsor or many other independents is a cry in the wilderness. Who is the new NSW Premier, the son of a previous liberal politician, there are too many other examples of parent/offspring for the security of our democracy.

  15. paul walter

    No. Its a dark article, for the lack of likelihood for anything resembling actual reform.

  16. Terry2

    In Queensland the Newman government have sought to bring the Crime & Misconduct Commission ( which is being re-titled the corruption commission) under direct control of the government by removing the legislative provision that required a parliamentary bipartisan committee to select the CMC Chair and other senior officers. Now, only the government will have the right to appoint these officers: our Attorney General says that ‘ this will take politics out of the process ‘.

    The government have also withdrawn the discretion that the Commission had to do their own research ; it can only be done with the approval of the Attorney General.This submission by a previous CMC Chair explains what is happening better than I can, for those interested :

    These changes effectively place the CMC firmly under the control of the Queensland government so don’t expect any scrutiny of Newman and his gang any time soon : a tragedy for democracy in Queensland.

  17. Kaye Lee

    That’s outrageous Terry. Ted Mack mentions that further on in his speech.

    “A fully independent Public Service Board needs to be reinstated for all government appointments particularly for bodies such as the Ombudsman, Corruption Commissions, Auditor-General, Police Integrity Commission, the Electoral Commission, and Remuneration Tribunal. Appointments must be based only on proven competence and integrity. The main reason many of these bodies at present fall short of public expectations is that the executives are appointed by, and their briefs are constrained by, government. Yet their role will often involve investigation of government.
    In other words all those bodies that have no political functions but are there to ensure the integrity of the system should be independent of government.”

    He suggests that an elected Governor-General should be the head of a 4th level of government called the Integrity Branch

  18. Douglas Evans

    As so often recently with pieces by Kaye Lee I agree with the sentiment of this article. However its analysis of what has caused our current political malaise crucially fails to highlight the centrally important role of the mandatory distribution of preferences in shoring up the power of our two ‘old’ Parties at both the State and Federal levels of government. Mandatory distribution is a device that greatly strengthens entrenched political power and greatly hinders the rise of political alternatives. In the Australian context it means that if your vote is valid, no matter who you placed as number one, it will, more often than not, end in the pool of votes which elects a candidate from either the L-NP coalition or the ALP. This is fine if you are among the currently 70 – 75% (but reducing) of voters who place one or other of those parties at the head of your list but not at all fine if you are among the 25 – 30% (and growing) of Australian voters who don’t. Both our ‘old’ political groupings are increasingly discovering the advantages to them of co-operation in these (and other) matters. Increasingly they swap preferences in what has accurately been described as cartel politics to shut out newcomers. This means that for a potential cross-bencher to be elected requires that he/she gains more than 50% the primary vote. This device which so advantages entrenched political power is the ultimate cause of most of the creeping distortions which Kaye Lee’s article highlights. In a democracy it should be up to the voter to decide whether their vote should be allocated to any party or candidate other than the one(s) they nominate. In Australia it is not. The ‘old’ parties clearly recognize the value to them of mandatory distribution and this is why it will never be removed. If anyone is interested to pursue this, last year I wrote stacks about this and other related issues on AIMN here: Old tired cynical and arrogant, and at Part 2 My original source of information on cartel politics was a couple of articles by the wonderful Sandi Keane (who now seems no longer to publish on-line?) and a book she put me onto – Political Parties in Transition edited by Professor Ian Marsh and published by Federation Press at ANU. Cartel politics should be a matter of deep concern for all of us.

  19. Greg O

    So @Mars08, people who are rich are automatically stupid and evil, and people who don’t know how to get rich are better qualified to help poor people? I await the flame, but that’s what you just said.

  20. mars08

    Gosh Greg, you’ve read a lot into my comment. All I was saying is that every vote should be of equal value. Candidates should not tailor their positions based on the financial status of the individual voter. Simply ingratiating themselves with generous donors is not the best way of setting policies.

    Oh, and please refrain from telling me what I “just said”. That sort of statement is just silly….

  21. Greg O

    Every vote is of equal value. You are not complaining about the value of the vote, you are complaining about how people attract those votes.

    Rich people equals bad, not rich equals good.

    That is what you said.

    You are complaining about the SCOTUS decision that rich people can spend more money supporting political candidates. Your complaint is therefore that rich people have too much influence, and that is bad. It is bad because why?

  22. mars08

    And you’re suggesting that rich people should have too much influence, and that is good. It is good because why?

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