Why it's time to rethink our MP numbers

By Denis Moriarty, Group Managing Director, Our Community

Often, when a columnist writes that they're expressing a controversial opinion, they mean that they're knocking timidly at a door that's not only wide open but has actually been dismantled and replaced by a patio. Just think of gay marriage, where something like 70% of ordinary Australians are on side but politicians and the media haven't caught up.

This is different. The opinion I'm about to voice is really out there, and has the potential to have me picked up and ejected bodily right through the glass of the politically acceptable "Overton window". I may be shunned as un-Australian by all right-thinking (and, for good measure, left-leaning) people, if not actually short-listed for deportation by Mr Dutton. I will lose friends and alienate people.

So be it.

Here goes: I think Australia needs more parliamentarians.

The sharp intake of breath across the continent is deafening. Don't we all agree that politicians are useless mouths, unprincipled time servers, overpaid mediocrities who spend all the time they can spare from neglecting their duties to feather their own nests? If Australians are ever asked whether they want more politicians, such as in the 1967 referendum, they vote the idea down decisively.

I don't in fact accept that MPS are just in it for the money - well, not any more than the rest of us - but in any case, I don't think it matters. We may not be convinced of the high-minded commitment to public service of our bus drivers, but we still want enough of them to drive our routes to our timetables. And, if we extend our routes to new suburbs and demand shorter waits at the bus stops, then we need more of them, however mercenary they may be.

Members of parliament - upper and lower houses, state and federal - are, among other things, community resources. Every Australian, of whatever party, has the inalienable right to stalk into the office of their local member shaking their umbrella angrily and demand an audience. What's more, they'll probably get one, which isn't the case with most of the rights we supposedly have under our somewhat moth-eaten constitution.

imageOur Community's Denis Moriarty

If the constituent is having a go at the MP for her votes on national issues, they probably won't get far. But if they're complaining about a public service department, or the post office, or their pension, the member will probably at least tell her staff to send out a letter asking what's going on. Departments care about what politicians think, collectively and individually, and are often prodded into action by these missives.

Most of us, though, don't take up this simple force multiplier. We let our representatives nap during office hours rather than demanding they fight like tigers for our interests. In part, this is because we have a vague feeling that as each of us is only one of their (on average) 167,000 constituents, we shouldn't be bothering them. And 167,000 is certainly a lot.

The thing is, when our parliament kicked off in 1901, the residents-per-member ratio was a mere 1:26,000. In other words, each politician now represents more than six times as many people as her predecessor in 1901. If you count all parliamentarians, state and federal, the ratio's gone up from 1:5,000 to 1:40,000. Has life really got eight times simpler in the intervening 119 years? Are we that much less in need of a voice on our side in the bureaucratic brouhaha?

Have you been complaining about the cost of pollies' salaries? Ha! Back in 1901, the cost of running the parliament, at £56,000 (about $9 million in today's money), took up more than 20% of the entire federal budget (not counting payments to the states). If the seat-holders cost that today, we'd have a legitimate complaint, but they don't.

We want our politicians to know about life in our suburb, our local community, not just our city. We want them to hear us, and we want a chance to see them, and in today's overstretched electorates there's not as much scope for either. We want diversity in our government, and responsiveness, and closeness to the grass roots, and when we don't see those things we blame the politicians and are even less willing to multiply their numbers. It's a vicious circle. It's time we broke out of it.

The message, then, is that your politicians - local, state, and federal - are there to be used (and sometimes abused) and you should take advantage of this as frequently as you need. Does your local community group need an advocate with Canberra? Would you believe a guest speaker at your AGM? If nothing else, they're probably good for a book of raffle tickets. Or, if we increase their numbers as I suggest, eight books. Win-win.

What Our Community thinks about other big issues

This commentary also appeared as part of a monthly column that's published in 160 rural and regional titles across Australia, from daily newspapers such as the Bendigo Advertiser and the Illwawarra Mercury, to weekly publications such as the Goulburn Post, the Cootamundra Herald and the Jimboomba Times.

We're proud to take a stand on progressive issues, which we're able to do as a social enterprise that's not tied to the purse strings of any government or corporate organisation.

Here's a taste of some other recent commentaries as they've appeared in some of those publications, as well as our own.

December 2019: It's time for less spending and more giving

November 2019: The Joy of Giving - on Tuesday

October 2019: Ignoring the data is an invitation to disaster

September 2019: What is the Catholic Church teaching us about love?

August 2019: The Uluru statement: Why it’s time for the Commonwealth to show some heart

July 2019: Why homelessness is worth this gamble

June 2019: After election, life and advocacy must go on

May 2019: Pokies reliance is a risk to RSLs

April 2019: Kids are teaching us the power of protest

March 2019: Work-life balance pulls us in three directions

Feb 2019: Australia Day honours: Why being rewarded for doing your job is un-Australian

Jan 2019: Why 2019 gives me reason for optimism

December 2018: It’s time to stop blaming pollies and start getting active

November 2018: Community connection is an antidote to loneliness

September 2018: Good culture is the key to good communities

August 2018: Drought sees groups suffering in a sunburnt country

July 2018: Thai cave rescue shows that community bonds are our best insurance