Offences against good government: a Troppo list challenge

So the Senate will conduct an enquiry into the Queensland government – on the pretext that, to quote Senator Glen Lazarus, it has made “many questionable decisions”. Never mind that state governments are elected by the same people who elect senators, or that senators are elected to conduct national business. A bunch of senators is going to go poking around state affairs, because the Queensland government did things with which some of those senators disagree.

This silliness comes courtesy of a deal between the Palmer United Party, Labor and the Greens. The Greens’ Senator Larissa Waters was on Radio National this morning doing a great job of not answering questions about her party’s trampling of good governance while gabbling about Newman’s “brutal agenda” – but to her credit, she at least put her head up above the parapet. Labor initially seemed mightily embarrassed, as they should be.

The excuse they’re all using for this departure from convention is that Queensland has no upper house. (Back in the day, much of the left was dedicated to eliminating upper houses as unrepresentative, but apparently this is now Not Canon, as they say in the comic-book business.) In real life, a more important factor appears to be that Clive Palmer hates Campbell Newman’s guts.

The senators’ decision is a procedural obscenity not just because it is transparently payback but because it builds a path to a future where parliaments inquire endlessly into each other simply because they are run by different parties. I disagree with a bunch of the Newman government’s decisions, but the medicine for that illness is an election, which is actually not that far away.

This sort of convention-busting idiocy traditionally gets debated for a few days, decried by commentators from one side or the other, and then buried. There’s no real constituency for maintaining decent conventions and processes of government, compared to the constituency for, say, cutting taxes.

But it’s worth an occasional attempt to remind everyone that our existing system of government has its good points and that slowly degrading it does the country no favours. Especially since we seem to be getting more of these breaches of convention over time.

So here’s the challenge to Troppodillians: Name one or more actions of governments over recent years which have junked useful conventions and eroded the capacity of governments to simply govern prudently and well.

Nominations in the comments, please.

Here are some starters, on top of the Enquiry Into Clive’s Enemy described above:

  • Hold A Royal Commission Into The Other Mob’s Failings. The Royal Commission into the pink batts affair predictably revealed nothing that wasn’t already known from many previous enquiries. Note that the Rudd government had generally resisted this path; in particular, it refrained from a royal commission into the AWB affair.
  • Sack The Capable Guy Who Once Worked For The Other Side. The extremely capable Martin Parkinson has lost his job running Treasury because he was an advisor to Labor treasurers in the 1990s and then head of Labor’s Department of Climate Change. His axing was reportedly over the protests of Joe Hockey. Again, Rudd had resisted doing the same thing, even keeping on Mark Paterson – a former ACCI chief – as head of the Department of Industry after the 2007 election. Paterson was tasked to work with, of all ministers, the Left’s Kim Carr. (They reportedly got on fine.)
  • Use Everyone’s Taxes To Tell Them How Sparkly We Are. The endless pre-election splurging of government funds on advertising to let us all know how wisely the incumbent government is spending our money. The Napthine government is running a version of this on high rotation on Melbourne TV right now, with CGI-enhanced propaganda trumpeting its probably sensible rail extensions as well as its more questionable East-West freeway link and airport rail line, neither of which has a publicly released benefit-cost analysis. I can barely even summon up outrage over this, as previous Labor governments did the same thing at least as energetically. This stuff has a long, grubby, expensive history; highlights include John Howard’s “Unchain My Heart” ads for the GST.

What have I missed? Please concentrate on governance issues, rather than just policies you (and perhaps I) don’t like.

The granddaddy of all convention-junking in Australian government, of course, remains the Fraser Opposition’s refusal to grant supply in 1975. But that’s four decades ago now and I’m going to declare it off-limits even though I think it was wrong. It’s an outlier – the one convention-trashing act which brought such a backlash that it’s unlikely to be repeated. Besides, I want fresh stuff – things that have happened in the past decade.

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS ( and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
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20 Responses to Offences against good government: a Troppo list challenge

  1. Alan says:

    Repeated claims by governments of both major parties that there is a convention that the mandate of the house of representatives is superior to the mandate of the senate.

    Repeated claims by governments of both major parties that the mandate of the executive is superior to the mandate of any or all of the house of representatives, the senate, or the parliament.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      There is a convention to the former. Government is formed in the lower house – see England, circa late seventeenth century onwards.

      • Alan says:

        That’s actually untrue. The last prime minister to come from the Lords was Salisbury from 1895 to 1902. I’d guess he would’ve resigned in the face a vote of confidence int he Commons but he also may have down so in the face of a similar vote in the Lords.

        The convention that the prime mister is responsible to the lower house certainly exists, but it is not quite as old as generally thought.

        Early prime ministers like Walpole spent fully as much time managing the king as they did managing the parliament and that continued to be the the case until the Bedchamber crisis in Victoria’s reign.

        In any case the convention that government is formed in the lower house does not mean that the prime minister should be able to get everything though both houses at pleasure.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Agreed that the upper house shouldn’t be anyone’s lackey. Thanks for the corrections on the historical record, but as you say, the House of Commons did have a kind of primacy even when the PM was in the Lords. I’ve always thought for instance that it ought to be possible in Australia for the Treasurer to come from the Senate – or even at a very large pinch the PM, but the bottom line is that government is formed in the lower house – they need the confidence of the lower house.

        • Alan says:

          You can actually construct a reasonable argument that responsible government was first applied in Canada and spread from there to Britain and the rest of the empah.

  2. Crocodile Chuck says:

    Abolishing the front bench representation of science, putting a kink in the oxygen hose of the CSIRO, simultaneous with the end of investment in the mining boom and the jaw dropping insanity of the abolition of the carbon tax.

    • David Walker says:

      FWIW, I happen to agree that the carbon tax/price was good policy,. But it’s hard to argue there was a longstanding convention in its favour, or that it was a process of good government. The aim of the post was to list examples of a fairly specific sort of bad governance.

  3. Tyler says:

    I think the more interesting decision by the Rudd government was the refusal to hold a royal commission into the Iraq War/performance of our intelligence agencies in that regard.

    A far more serious disaster than anything that could be ascribed to the pink batts nonsense and one that arguably resulted from genuine institutional failures/weaknesses that ought to be remedied.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, there was more of a case for that than Pink Batts or GillardSlushGate.

      • Tyler says:

        and i think interesting in the sense that a sense of being limited by propriety/convention arguably stopped serious consideration of what was a totally justifiable course of action.

  4. Moz in Oz says:

    There’s bound to be a convention of ministers answering questions that “we don’t comment on operational matters” violates. Perhaps that “operational matters” refers strictly to actual military operations?

    • David Walker says:

      Really interesting case. As you suggest, the core problem may lie in the treatment of non-military matters as military. I am not sure if there’s ever been a convention against this, but there should be.

      Note: I suspect that “we don’t comment on operational matters” rests on a military usage, but I don’t know for sure.

      • Alan says:

        I think you’ll find it’s a very recent invention. Military operations were the subject of parliamentary debates in WWII in both Westminster and Canberra. If the convention had applied, Chamberlain would have remained prime minister, presumably until his death.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if a little research showed the military operations convention is almost as recent as the on water matters convention or the give everything a silly name that makes it sound like a military operation convention.

        Conventions are supposed to advance parliamentary democracy, not the interests of the government of the day or the common interests of the two parties with a prospect of forming the government of the day.

  5. desipis says:

    There’s a been a few in Queensland:
    * Disregard for the principles of the criminal justice system with their anti-bikie legislation
    * Appointing an inexperienced magistrate as chief justice on the basis of his overt support for the government’s anti-bikie laws.
    * Neutering the CMC (Queensland anti-corruption watchdog)
    * Removing the bipartisan requirements to appointing the CMC chairperson

  6. PSC says:

    A few:

    Dept of PM Uber Alles: My strong impression is that cabinets used to do a lot more than they do today. There was a convention that important stuff would be debated in cabinet – or at least rubber stamped – before it was called “government policy”.

    The “I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it. You can’t prove anything” school of ministerial responsibility There was a convention that ministers were responsible for major foulups in their department, and would resign if there was a major foulup. But of course this is unfair nowadays because all decisions come out of the PM’s office.

    And one we need – accounts signed off by independent auditors working to a reasonably strict accounting standard.

  7. John Street says:

    Impartiality of the Speaker (not)!

  8. Persse says:

    Using Royal Commissions to give your political opponents a kicking is bad enough, over-egging the security dangers of refugee seekers and not answering legitimate questions under cover of dubious assertions of national security interest. However, my view is the deliberate trashing of the previous governments agenda is particularly insidious, with regular changes in government, and tit for tat, it would mean the end of functional policy.

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