When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal. – Richard M. Nixon

The resignation of two senators because they found themselves not to be qualified for election, raises (at least) two very interesting issues.

Firstly, it has highlighted the need for our Constitution to be brought up to date with contemporary expectations, and the realities of the global community we now live in.

Secondly, the standards that we hold our elected representatives to, and how the apparent paucity of such standards may be one of the reasons our politicians have lost the respect of the electorate.

CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM

Reforming the constitution is notoriously difficult. Since federation in 1901 only 8 out of 44 attempts at changing it has been successful, the most recent in 1977. The constitution can only be amended by referendum – although the High Court has on occasion helped interpret it, somewhat alleviating the need for an actual update.

Much has changed in the almost 120 years since the constitution was written. A good example of how things have changed for the better is ‘Section 25 – Provisions as to races disqualified from voting’. Yes, you read that right. Granted, it deals with how to determine the number of representatives between the states, and as no state no longer excludes any race (!), it is irrelevant.

Irrelevant or not, it illustrates how things have changed and that the fundamental tenement of how this country is governed is out of date. Another example relevant to this most recent debacle of senators being disqualified, is Section 34, dealing with qualifications of Members (of Parliament). It states:

“He (sic) must be a subject of the Queen, either natural-born or for at least five years naturalized under a law of the United Kingdom, or of a Colony which has become or becomes a State, or of the Commonwealth, or of a State.”

As this section is preceded by “Until the Parliament otherwise provides…”, and Parliament has indeed changed it to mean an Australian Citizen (over 18), it offers no help to Senators Ludlam and Waters, both in effect “of a Colony”, but you get my drift.

There are many other reasons that our constitution is in need of a major overhaul, but that is another subject for another day, another blog-post. In the meantime, you may want to check out ‘The Australian Constitution for dummies’.

THE STANDARDS OF OUR POLITICIANS

Apart from having to be a citizen, and not a dual citizen, and over 18, there are not many more qualifying criteria for someone to be elected to the legislature. Section 44 states that you are disqualified if you:

  • have been “attained for treason”
  • have been sentenced for any offence punishable by more than one year in prison
  • are an undischarged bankrupt or been declared insolvent
  • hold any Government paid positions
  • have any pecuniary interest in a company that has Government contracts (unless as a shareholder in a company with 25 shareholders or more).

And that’s it! In other words, Clive Palmer, who has held the Government to ransom for 70 million of his employee liabilities at Queensland nickel, but yet to be charged with anything, is technically still eligible to be elected. An 18 year old derelict with a long rap-sheet of misdemeanours is deemed qualified to take a seat in Parliament, making decisions that impact on all of us.

Being elected is an immense privilege and a huge responsibility. Should we not demand of our elected representatives that they are more than just citizens of voting age with (almost) no criminal record?

Parliamentarians get involved in a vast array of diverse issues that they are asked to take a stand on. Even more so for those on the front bench, Government ministers with very specific responsibilities within complicated portfolios.

Many years ago, when I was in a senior role at a Telco, I sat next to the then Communications Minister, Richard Alston, at an industry function. His fundamental lack of understanding of the industry sector for which he was asked to set policies, was illuminating; Or rather, downright scary.

The current Minister for Communications, Mitch Fifield – who incidentally took Alston’s place in the senate when he retired – has no evident telecommunications experience either. And we have a Minister for Health (Greg Hunt) educated as a lawyer, a Treasurer (Scott Morrison) who has never run a company, and an Education Minister (Simon Birmingham) who has no apparent direct work experience from any school or university whatsoever.

Moreover, our politicians have spent most, if not all, their working life in or around politics. How does that equip them to make the right policy decisions? Should we not demand that those that govern are truly one of us. “Government (is) of the people, by the people and for the people…” – to quote Abraham Lincoln.

Should we not demand of our politicians that they have “real-life” experience? I have immense faith in the younger generation as the saviours of our collective future, but does a 22 year old have the experience and (dare I say it) wisdom to make decisions on behalf of a nation? 

Are we also not entitled to representatives that are of the most impeccable ethical standards? When the venerable Tony Fitzgerald (he of the Fitzgerald Inquiry) and the Australian Institute put these seven basic questions of ethics to our 226 federal parliamentarians, 36 declined to participate and 137 did not reply. Less than one quarter of our leading politicians were prepared to commit to these, fairly self-evident, standards of conduct:

  • To act honourably and fairly and solely in the public interest
  • To treat all citizens equally
  • To tell the truth
  • Not to mislead or deceive
  • Not to withhold or obfuscate information to which voters are entitled
  • Not to spend public money except for public benefit
  • Not to use your position or information gained from your position for your benefit or the benefit of a family member, friend, political party or other related entity

Given recent events, maybe we should also add “To read the Constitution”.

To be continued…

Now there’s an idea…