Flat White

Government by the people but not for the people

17 December 2020

6:33 PM

17 December 2020

6:33 PM

I’m no doubt in a minority, but I believe that the American governing model, with a Montesquieu-ian separation of powers is infinitely superior to the current Washminster system that plagues Australia. 

One of the most regular argument Australians use against the American system is that the American government can’t get anything done. But is that really a bad thing? To constrain the government from implementing policy and legislation willy nilly is an eminently conservative thing. To require a broad polity to pass law is an eminently democratic thing. 

The American system, by design, makes major policy change difficult. America requires much more than an independent Congressman in a minority controlled legislature to pass nation changing laws. Because of its legislative systems and rules, the US congress needs as broad polity, and representatives of more than 50% plus 1 of the population to pass laws. 

You just do not see the wild policy swing in America that we see in Australia. Put aside the virtues or vices of Obama-care, despite having a majority in the Congress, the Senate and the White House, all at the same time, the Republicans have been unable to repeal it. Making laws hard to pass in America is a feature and not a fault of the system. In contrast, within the space of 18 months, carbon tax and mining tax legislation was both passed and repealed in Australia. 

Another source of superiority of the American systems is the honesty of it. Department heads are political appointees rather than members of the generally-permanent Australian public service. While it may be the obligation of the Australian Public Service to provide frank and fearless advice and to implement the policies of the elected government, one really must wonder about the quality of advice and implementation to a Liberal government from people who live in a city/territory that consistently and decisively vote for the Labor Party and the Australian Greens. 

With political appointees to head federal departments in America, it is possible, as is regularly done, to rapidly implement the policies of the elected government. This in contrast with the Canberra cloaca which will first want to establish an interdepartmental committee to prepare a feasibility study and budget analysis before producing a consultative document for consideration by all interested bodies to feed into a green paper which would seek future consultation leading to further interdepartmental consultation and analysis to go into a white paper and then a draft consultation to prepare draft legislation which would then need to be exposed to further consultation. And on and on and on. In Australia, elections often don’t matter. Politicians come and go. It is the bureaucracy that is perpetual. 

The other superiority the American system has over the Australia one is the notion of the unitary executive. In America, all executive bodies ultimately report and are accountable to the President in his role as head of the executive. Everyone in the executive serves at the pleasure of the President.  This was confirmed earlier this year in a Supreme Court judgement that found the President could terminate the head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau at will, thus refuting the Obama administration law that was crafted by Elizabeth Warren. 

Why does this matter? Let’s start with the ABC. The ABC is an executive agency yet seems to have no accountability to the elected government. The utterly ridiculous recent exchange of letters between the Minister and the ABC Chair we have witnessed bears clear witness. And the cherry on top, the ABC Chair feels disrespected because the representative of the elected government has the temerity to ask the board, appointed by an elected government, to justify itself.   

We have an agency of the Commonwealth government of Australia which seems to have no accountability to anyone and rejects any attempt to impose accountability. But why stop at the ABC?   

The list of unaccountable bodies and quangos that cost Australian tax payers billions upon billions of dollars knows no end yet the ELECTED government can’t seem to do anything.  Fine.  It may require an act of parliament to abolish these bodies, but why can’t the ELECTED government terminate the executives of these bodies at will? Don’t elections matter? If there is a price to be paid for such action, it is a political price to be paid at the next election. 

Yes, granted, Australia has the system it has and wishing for features of the US system in Australia is just wish thinking. However, when it comes time for discussion of constitutional reform in Australia, can we please put aside the standard attempts by political parties and politicians to accumulate power in themselves through fixed terms and other anti-competitive and anti-accountability barriers?

Rather, can we please have some reform to allow the people to hold the political class to account who in turn can keep the bureaucratic class to account? 

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