More pollies? The ayes may have it this time

Columnist MICHAEL MOORE says it’s time we grew up, democratically that is

MORE MLAs in the Assembly? Should we just have a city council? More power to the Assembly? Single-member electorates? Five per electorate or seven? Different electoral boundaries? A premier rather than a chief minister?

These are some of the questions to be considered by an Assembly Committee looking at the operation of the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 (Cwlth), which is effectively the ACT Constitution. Submissions are due this week.

Most Canberrans accept the reality that self-government is here to stay. So it is not a bad time to ask how it can be improved. Three of the four committee members considering this issue are in their first term: Speaker, Shane Rattenbury is chairing the committee with other MLAs Amanda Bresnan and Jeremy Hanson. The long-term MLA, John Hargreaves, brings some of the Assembly’s “corporate knowledge”.

Former Speaker Greg Cornwell, in a submission to the committee, argues for a bigger Assembly to 23 or 25 members for the 2016 election. He argues that the ratio of voters to MLAs at the inception of the Assembly was one to 10,000. With the most recently published figures of 248,087 ACT voters, the ratio of voters to MLAs is now closer to one to 15,000.

One of the documents that should form the basis of the committee’s considerations is the 1998 “Review of Governance of the Australian Capital Territory”. When Philip Pettit chaired this last inquiry into self-government supported by Tim Keady and Bill Blick, he was professor of political philosophy at ANU. He is now professor of politics and human values at Princeton University and has made a submission.

The 1998 review recommended modifying the Self Government Act so that the Territory has the same powers “as those enjoyed by a State parliament” and also recommended retaining a ratio of one elected member to 10,000 voters.

Professor Pettit has now written to the committee suggesting consideration of “Deliberative Democracy” for dealing with controversial issues. In a nutshell, voters are selected randomly, presented with all the arguments for and against a controversial issue and then asked for a final view of what action the government should take. The system has been used successfully in British Columbia and a number of other international jurisdictions. Variations have been used in Australia to gain informed views from the public rather than relying on popularity polling.

No democracy provides a perfect system of governance. However, the self-government Act should be referring to the Assembly as a parliament, the leader should be premier and the ministers should wear the title “Honourable”, the same as every other Minister and some local councillors throughout Australia. The ACT Parliament should be able to determine its own limits in the same way as all State Parliaments in Australia. While this is not the case the ACT Parliament and its people will remain second-class citizens.

 

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.

Details of the Inquiry may be found at http://goo.gl/5wUHN

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