It's too early to kill reform body

by Chris Griffith
Published 19 July 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


The recommendation to disband the Fitzgerald report-inspired Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC) by mid 1993 is, at first glance, entirely reasonable.

EARC has already completed 17 of its 21 prescribed reviews, and by April 1993 it will have presented its last four reports.

Its legacy of state and local government electoral reform and, where implemented, sweeping administrative reform is unparalleled in Queensland's history.

Yet in recommending that EARC disband, its supervising parliamentary committee, headed by Labor MLA Matt Foley, has forgone an historic opportunity to cement the review process's long-term success.

It may be true the Goss Government can rightly boast electoral and administrative reforms, however reform of Queensland's parliament seems where the Fitzgerald reform process is failing.

Hopes of a head-on review of Queensland's constitution, parliament's operation, the issue of an Upper House, and concern about the dominance of parliament by executive government have evaporated with the decision to disband EARC.

This latter issue was pursued at April's conference on Fitzgerald reform by speakers such as Law Society past president Ray Rinardo and CJC chairman Sir Max Bingham who spoke of "the presently untrammelled power of the executive".

At the same conference, the Foley committee's own research director, Ms Janet Ransley, said of this problem: "There is, however, little that has been achieved by way of lasting reform to the uneven balance between the executive and the parliament, and little hint of any intention to achieve such reform."

It appears EARC's parliamentary committee concluded that in a recession this concern is peripheral to the public; that there are more pressing problems to face.

However a newly published book, "The Executive State - WA Inc. and the Constitution", edited by Patrick O'Brien and Martyn Webb, examines in the Western Australian context how executive-dominated governments could cost present and future taxpayers millions of dollars. Its message is especially relevant to Queensland and is a warning for the future.

The committee also missed the chance to recommend action to reform parliamentary standing orders beyond EARC's more piecemeal examinations during its resources of non-government members and parliamentary committees reviews.

It is a chilling fact that the normal vehicle for reviewing standing orders, parliament's Standing Orders Committee, did not meet between 1950 and 1980, and met once in each of the previous two parliaments.

This committee, now meeting annually under chairman Jim Fouras, must press for the reform of question time to bring the Queensland parliament up to House of Representatives standards.

Junior MPs have few opportunities to ask questions in parliament because question time is only an hour per day. Queensland could adopt the federal practice of allowing MPs to ask questions in writing and to receive responses in writing outside of this time.

MPs must also be allowed to ask supplementary questions to counter evasive ministerial responses - to quiz Senator Richardson over the Marshall Islands' affair would be more difficult in the Queensland parliament.

EARC could have also examined the state's archaic, neanderthalic constitution, currently a dogs breakfast of 27 Acts, proclamations, and orders, many of which contradict one other.

In the Privy Council's words, the Queensland constitution is "uncontrolled". Surely this state is entitled to a constitution better than that of a local bingo society's.

The Parliamentary Committee's report further rejected a suggestion that EARC monitor the government's enactment of reform.

This activity could have involved as little as the Commission requesting the Government reply as to why it rejected, altered, or delayed specific recommendations, and for those replies to be documented to allow the community to pursue those issues.

However the committee's report said a monitoring task would cause EARC to become "a participant in the political process" - yet bodies such as the Human Rights Commission do this whenever they comment on a government's human rights record.

Perhaps the most interesting of the report's recommendations is its proposal to replace EARC with a new "Administrative Review Council" to conduct administrative law reform.

Much of EARC's charter has already been delegated to the Electoral Commission of Queensland, the Local Government Commissioner, the Information Commissioner (for FoI), and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. These can regularly report to parliament.

However this new administrative body, if established along commonwealth lines, would report to the Attorney-General. It is unlike EARC, as there is no requirement for its reports to be tabled routinely in parliament, with the exception of its annual report.

Mr Foley argues such a body needs to be secret as it is involved in cabinet's deliberations. He says its annual report can raise publicly matters of concern that should be aired.

However one wonders if this new structure will again enhance cabinet's power over parliament.

It is obvious and acceptable that EARC was always going to be a temporary commission, but maybe another 12 months may seen outstanding business completed.