Thursday, December 23, 2010

Proroguing criticism

New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally has a problem. Her government is involved in a dubious and controversial plan to privatise the state's electricity assets. But opposition legislators, who control the state's upper house, are not impressed with the idea of selling key state assets for half of what they are worth (and then throwing in A$2.3 billion of "inducements" into the bargain). So they've launched a select committee inquiry into the deal, which could result in criticism of the government.

Keneally has responded by proroguing Parliament, effectively killing off the inquiry by suspending all select committee business until the state elections next year.

As with the proroguings in Canada in 2008 and the Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea this year, this is an affront to democracy. Unlike the previous cases, there's no real question of Keneally's democratic mandate to rule - she still has a majority where it counts, in the lower house. But in some ways, that makes it worse: New South Wales democracy is being overturned, not to ensure the survival of a government, but simply to prevent ordinary, everyday criticism. Which makes you wonder what she would do if her majority was under threat...

This is a fundamental flaw in the Westminster system, but we know how to solve it. In the seventeenth century, the English Parliament responded to a monarch who suspended and dissolved them for his political convenience by deciding for themselves when they would meet, effectively repealing the power of prorogation (and, in their case, of dissolution - not a democratic move). The New Zealand Parliament has effectively done the same, setting its sitting calendar by motion. While the power to prorogue technically remains, our Parliament is now in practice an independent entity, rather than one which exists and meets at the whim of the monarch or the Prime Minister. New South Wales (and Canada, the Cook Islands and PNG) should follow our example.