Forget Westminster! We have Axe-Minster!

by Chris Griffith
Published 24 May 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


Queensland's one-house parliament has never been the hub of state political decision making.

Over the years cabinet and senior government bureaucrats have relegated parliament to a sausage machine that formalised pre- determined legislation, frequently in the middle of the night.

Far from respecting Westminster traditions, the Queensland parliament and government adopted Axe-Minster democracy, a belief that political dissent, even independence of thought, should be countered with the chop.

This week saw one pillar of Axe-Minster fall with the entry into parliament of the Peaceful Assembly Bill that will provide Queenslanders with a long-awaited right to march in the streets and to conduct public assemblies.

This welcomed legislation is well overdue. The Bill was drafted by the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC) as long ago as February 1991, and endorsed by its governing parliamentary committee in June 1991.

It is also significant the parliament this week passed legislation strengthening the bargaining position of voters at elections against the demands of our entrenched political parties.

Parliament's enactment of optional preferential voting means voters can defy political party how-to-vote cards and allocate preferences only where they regard alternative candidates as worthy of support.

However, against these achievements is new Labor Party research which finds the public's lack of confidence in the government's commitment to Fitzgerald reform is affecting its vote.

It appears the Mackenroth-Newnham affair and the travel rorts issue have finally registered in the electorate. However there are other concerns about the Goss Government's reform commitment that do not necessarily register in polls.

For a start, parliament is not meeting regularly. The Goss Government began its term well in this regard, with 58 and 52 sitting days in 1990 and 1991.

However 19 sitting days this half-year is not even a pretence of a commitment to parliament's traditional role of a fundamental check against the abuse of power by cabinet and the bureaucracy.

Then there's the passing of a watered-down version of the "Legislative Standards Bill", EARC-inspired legislation designed to ensure new Bills are adequately reviewed and are of the highest standard before entering parliament.

There is also the apparent holdup in the processing of new legislation by the Parliamentary Counsel, a holdup forcing long delays in new legislation going to parliament.

Where, for example, is freedom of information legislation, and a Bill ensuring a basic Fitzgerald political reform -- the public declaration of donations to political parties?

Hopefully the government will fast-track both Bills, and the registration of donations will be made retrospective so the public will know whether money has influenced the policies and promises spouted at this year's election.

Another area where Axe-Minster instincts are to the fore is a Premier's Department's decision to reject EARC's plea to forward individual departmental submissions and responses on the Commission's review of government media units.

Acting director-general N W Lawson replied to EARC saying: "I have carefully considered your request and have come to the view that the variety of practices can be adequately and accurately communicated in a co-ordinated submission."

This response is, at best, an attempt to frustrate a public review mounted by a Fitzgerald-reform commission at taxpayers' expense, and the gagging of the expression of conflicting views within the bureaucracy.

Mr Goss has responded to his party's research by giving a pep-talk to his ministers on a need to sell its Fitzgerald-reform successes. He has responded to public outrage at the Newnham-Mackenroth affair with legislation to extend Mr Newnham's available appeal grounds.

However he must address other concerns if the Government can seriously be taken as back-on-track in implementing Fitzgerald reforms.

There is also the fate of those two extra-parliamentary reform commissions - EARC and the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC).

Any move to prematurely wind-down EARC would be totally Axe-Minster, as would any move to undermine the independence of the more-permanent CJC.

On the other hand it would be totally constructive for the government to extend parliamentary sitting days and debate the Parliamentary Criminal Justice Committee's report of recommended changes to the CJC.

The current public jousting match between the Government and the Commission would at least evolve into a deliberative debate on the Commission's future, the way Fitzgerald intended it to be.

Axe-Minster would be giving way to Westminster.