Assembling the battle lines

13 March 2014

This op-ed was written by Emeritus Professor John Warhurst from the ANU School of Politics and International Relations and was first published in The Canberra Times.

The ACT has distinctive and quite unusual politics. We are an atypical society made up of disproportionately high-earning, middle-class, white collar public servants, scientific researchers and academics. We are also the national capital and home to the Federal Parliament.

Democracy in the ACT has evolved from a colonial situation, both in terms of self-government and federal representation. Even so, opposition to self-government remains active, and denigration of our own Parliament by Canberrans is common.

While there are some legitimate arguments against self-government, such as cost-effectiveness compared with government from NSW or the Commonwealth and the relatively small size of the ACT jurisdiction, the vehemence of some opposition continues to surprise me. Furthermore, the growth of the ACT population weakens at least some of the anti-self-government arguments.

Analysis of support for and opposition to self-government has so far been superficial. There are further aspects of the ACT democratic culture that deserve consideration. Our public affairs are hampered by some other often-forgotten limits on participation in local politics.

There are many ACT citizens whose world view is blinkered about local democracy. In part what makes us distinctive also hampers us. The predominance of federal public servants means that a substantial number of our citizens are employed by another jurisdiction whose size and clout puts the ACT in the pale. The constraints on political participation by these public servants, especially more senior ones, because of the rules and culture of a non-political public service, also hurts ACT democracy.

There is also another large bloc of ACT citizens who are concerned primarily about national and even international issues. These include pressure group employees, national party advisers, lobbyists, the national media, and many academics. For them federal politics always overshadows local politics. They may be active citizens but their citizenship is not directed to local issues.

Many people in the Canberra region also live outside ACT boundaries and therefore can't actively participate or vote in Canberra. They often consider themselves Canberrans but they have excluded themselves from full participation by their choice of residential location.

These characteristics of ACT society and democracy are part of the background to understanding the current big controversies about the ACT Legislative Assembly. They are not the only relevant background because Canberra citizens share many attitudes held by Australians nationwide.

Such attitudes are tracked in the recently released Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987-2013 (ANU, 2014). Despite general satisfaction with democracy, there is a relatively low level of trust in government. Most people don't believe government is run for them, nor do they believe that politicians know what ordinary people think.

The two controversies are the size of the ACT Assembly and the question of how much ACT politicians should be paid. Both matters are at a tipping point. The Liberal Party has recently joined ACT Labor in agreeing with the recommendation of the Greens inquiry that the size of the Assembly should be increased from 17 to 25 members. The independent ACT Remuneration Tribunal has recently implied in an issues paper that a significant increase in ACT Assembly salaries is probably justified.

These two matters should be considered together. Their content will be unpalatable to critics because the consequence may be a larger, better-paid Assembly. They will not be mollified by the hands-off processes that have been undertaken to suggest these conclusions. They will see the independent advice as coming from advisers who share a pro-Assembly culture.

Even in Canberra the world of

tribunals and expert advisers is foreign to most people who are not tuned in to politics. Therefore the notion of the Assembly acting on independent advice carries little weight with them. As far as they are concerned, most of the ''great and good'' who fill these positions are part of a privileged minority far removed from everyday concerns.

This perception is not fair but it is still real. Breaking down such a perception is not easy but every effort should be made to broaden the type of person recruited to such independent positions. For instance, someone from ACT Council of Social Service would be a useful addition to the Remuneration Tribunal.

The critics will largely have the wider community on side or at least apathetic. Both developments would probably be defeated if they were put to a referendum even with multipartisan support. That doesn't mean that the community is right but it does mean that the political parties should be alert to community opinion. I think they are. That is why the Liberals sought approval from their wider membership. But that party approval would also be seen as self-interested and narrow by the critics. That also explains the caution expressed by Chief Minister Katy Gallagher about anything other than a small increase in the remuneration of Assembly members.

I support increasing the size of the Assembly as proposed and also adequate recompense for ACT representatives. But there are complexities to be taken into account.

One complication is seeking to consider remuneration at the same time as a likely increase in the size of the Assembly. There must be a link, but the suggestion that with a larger Assembly there should be no increase in the salary expenditure on MLAs is harsh and fanciful.

Another complication is that the job of a political representative is one of a kind and remuneration is not properly comparable with either the public or private sector.

Furthermore, there is no convincing evidence that the quality of our representatives is linked to their salaries.

Finally, while threatening general economic conditions should be taken into account, so should the high average incomes in the ACT.