Friday, April 21, 2006

The Age Goes To Town: The Undemocratic Premier

Normally, Team Brackswatch tries its best to paraphrase, and sum up articles to make a point, because, like most, we think long diatribes are boring and drawn out. But Paul Austin's effort in The Age today has us collectively nodding our heads.
(Our Bold)

The contempt with which the Bracks Government treats the Victorian Parliament is something to behold. Trouble is, so few Victorians actually do behold it that the Government seems to believe it can get away with it.

The list of this Government's offences against the Parliament is long: it ensures the Parliament sits infrequently; when Parliament does sit, the Government seeks to ensure that the political "news" of the day happens elsewhere; and the one period of each sitting day when the public and press galleries are likely to be well populated, question time, is treated by the Government too often as its plaything and too rarely as a means of seriously reporting to the people on the activities of their representatives.

The list is hardly unprecedented, but the point is that Steve Bracks promised something better. During the 1999 election campaign, Bracks, taking the usual licence of opposition leaders, said of Liberal premier Jeff Kennett: "If he could pass a law to outlaw elections, the premier would do it . . . If he could close down the Parliament completely, rather than the least number of sitting days he has now, he'd probably do that as well. Imagine if he is re-elected with a big majority and what he'll close down next - not only no debates, probably no Parliament." A year into his term in office, Bracks was still talking up the ideal of a rigorous Parliament. Issuing a policy in October 2000 on "ensuring openness and probity in Victorian Government contracts", Premier Bracks said: "We believe that government is only doing its job properly if it allows the Parliament, the community and the auditor-general to scrutinise its activities and hold it to account."

But, as so often with this Government, the fine words were not matched with firm actions. In the election year of 1999, when Victoria was ruled by that anti-democratic Mr Kennett, the Parliament sat for 37 days. In this election year of 2006, with Victoria ruled by that champion of democracy Mr Bracks, the Parliament will sit for 38 days. Opposition Leader Robert Doyle, unsurprisingly, accuses this Government of paying lip service to parliamentary democracy. But his argument is backed by figures showing the Parliament sat for 15 fewer days during the first six years of Bracks than it did during the last six years of Kennett.

A "sitting week" for the Victorian Parliament means Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday only. A "sitting day" can be so short as to leave you wondering whether it was worth turning on the lights: on April 4 this year, the upper house convened at 2pm and adjourned at 5.23pm.

On the days when the Parliament does sit before lunch, Bracks often absents himself from the building during the morning to make the Government's good-news announcement of the day at a TV-friendly location. Then, during question time from 2pm, he arranges for a Labor backbencher to ask him a "Dorothy Dixer" question about said announcement so the Premier can bring the Parliament up to speed.

As for the idea that ministers should account to the people via the Parliament for the allocation of public money and the good governance of their portfolios - well, sometimes the very concept appears foreign to this Government. Space permits only one example, but readers inclined to trawl through Hansard ( will quickly find others.

During question time in the lower house on April 4 (the same day as the upper house sat for a little over three hours), Opposition health spokeswoman Helen Shardey referred minister Bronwyn Pike to "reports that the Wangaratta area manager of Rural Ambulance Victoria was allowed to resign after it was discovered he had forged signatures to get jobs for unqualified mates". Shardey specifically asked Pike: "Why has this man still got a car owned by Rural Ambulance Victoria, and why are Victorian taxpayers still paying to put petrol in it?" Pike's "answer" occupied several minutes, but not once did she mention the area manager, or his car, or who was paying for his petrol. Even the (Labor) Speaker had to ask Pike after she resumed her seat, "Has the minister completed her answer?" Pike: "Yes."

It did not seem to occur to Pike that, while giving a brief summary of the recent history of the RAV and talking up the investment her Government had made in the service, she might have also said words to the effect that the questioner had made an allegation about serious misuse of public money and the minister would have her office or department investigate immediately and would report back to the Parliament at the first opportunity.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Bracks Government is happy to belittle the Parliament. After all, this Premier has shown few signs that he regards the lifting of standards in public life as part of his brief.

Last month, when The Age revealed that Police Minister Tim Holding (among others) had been using his taxpayer-funded, chauffeur-driven ministerial car in a Labor Party preselection battle, some political observers thought this might be the subject of a rebuke, or worse, from the Premier. Not a bit of it. Asked his response, Bracks said through his spokeswoman, Alison Crosweller: "Ministers, along with opposition leaders and their deputies, have access to a driver and a car which can be used at their discretion. This is the case in all other states and the Commonwealth Government."

In other words, don't expect the Bracks Government to seek to set a good example on the use of ministerial cars, and don't expect Bracks to enforce higher standards on his ministers.

Steve Bracks doesn't lament the declining relevance of the Victorian Parliament. He contributes to it.

Update: WeekByWeek gives a mathmatical explanation of sitting days

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At 1:06 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

It is obvious that Bracks, and every other ALP Premier in the country, see themselves as "Presidential" style leaders who can exercise executive power without accountability to the legislature or even to their own parties.

Think of the way Bracks crassly overrules his own party members on preselections, and the way they use Parliament as a mere rubber stamp for the actions of his ministers. While Victoria may constitutionally still enjoy a Westminster style system, it is clear that functionally Bracks is operating like a republican President, with a total lack of accountability to anyone but himself.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Michael said...

The part about cutting down the sitting week (and it ain't a normal working week) is full of contempt for an institution like parliament.
We can only hope that others open up the accountability process.

At 7:18 PM, Blogger weekbyweek said...

I think this may be more apt and to the point! pls see:

At 12:14 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Thanks weekbyweek, will add to main story.

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With his contemp for Parliment, accountability and any concept of ministerial standards, Bracks is looking more amd more like Howard every day!

At 12:38 AM, Blogger Michael said...

(SIC)With his contemp for Parliment, accountability and any concept of ministerial standards, Bracks is looking more amd more like Howard every day!

We would like to make the diffence between state and federal parliaments. Bracks has certainly cut down far more opportunities for accountability than Howard. Any comparaison to John Howard is unwarranted.


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