NSW could be a laboratory of democracy on diverse representation

Osmond Chiu

Appointing some ministers from outside parliament could help boost representation and improve policymaking.

21 May 2024

Over the past few years, the demand for more diverse representation in our institutions has grown. Across a range of fields from business and the media to arts and government, communities have become far more vocal about their expectations of diversity. But there is still more to do as diverse representation remains far from normalised, the political sphere being a glaring example.

At the last federal election, Australia elected its most diverse parliament ever. Despite that, our parliaments and senior political leaders still do not reflect Australia’s diversity. Analysis done last year for the ABC TV show WTFAQ indicated that a truly representative federal parliament would have more people with a disability, from non-European cultural backgrounds, without a university degree, and who rented.

Descriptive representation matters. The politics of presence is important given the link between descriptive and substantive representation – that is, representation has an effect. It may have a positive impact on the policymaking process and strengthen the legitimacy needed to implement policy reforms. Underrepresentation also has an impact beyond the symbolic. For example, academic Julie Pietsch has observed that the lack of descriptive representation from ethnic minorities can undermine their trust in democratic institutions and a sense of belonging.

Our diversity is an underutilised strength in politics. The benefits of better representation extend beyond a single group. Evidence suggests that diversity in politics makes it less likely the community’s views during decision-making processes will be misjudged. Different perspectives means that assumptions get challenged, there is more of a focus on facts, and the community’s needs will more likely be met. It may also help address declining trust in public institutions.

Recognition of the representation problem in Australian politics has grown in recent years, especially the underrepresentation of women and cultural diversity. In response, there has been a focus on developing talent pipelines, with parties committing to the Jenkins Review’s recommendation of 10-year diversity strategies with specific actions, government grants to boost diversity and equality in politics, and the creation of programs like Pathways to Politics. These are important but success will take time and they cannot guarantee improved representation. Quotas remain contentious and are unlikely to be extended more broadly by parties in the near future.

This begs the question, what else could be done?

While the focus is often on the federal parliament, it is not the only forum to improve descriptive representation in politics. There is scope to do much more at the state level. If states are laboratories of democracy, then they could allow us to test more radical ideas to diversify representation in senior leadership positions. State parliaments already operate differently when it comes to parliamentary processes and even electoral systems.

One radical idea would be appointment of non-MP Ministers to the New South Wales Government. While the Australian Constitution states that no Minister of State shall hold office for more than three months unless they become a Member of Parliament, NSW does not explicitly have such a prohibition. Ministers only have to be members of the Executive Council which is appointed by the Governor (with advice from the Premier). Only parliamentary secretaries need to be members of NSW Parliament. The appointment of MPs as ministers relies on Westminster convention rather than constitutional requirements.

Advocates of the Westminster system of government have argued that its flexibility is a key strength. That flexibility should be put to good use to address gaps in representation at senior levels. NSW could serve as a model for rethinking the Westminster system in Australia.

Imagine if we could ensure the Minister for Youth is a young person, or that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs was a First Nations person. Or appoint someone with the life experience and knowledge that can grapple with a complex, specific portfolio. It could overcome any limits on diversity due to the limited ranks of a parliamentary party.

Addressing underrepresentation is effectively outsourced to political parties but they will always move slower than community expectations. We are relying on political parties to become more representative of the community at a time that they have actually become less representative of the community.

Now this isn’t a new debate. Prior to being elected to Parliament, Bob Hawke discussed the idea in his 1979 Boyer Lectures, arguing that a quarter of the Ministry should be allowed to be appointed from outside of the parliament.

The strongest objection comes from a belief that it undermines parliamentary accountability.

Similar concerns were recently raised abouthow British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who was appointed to the unelected House of Lords, could be held to account in the popularly elected House of Commons.

To address concerns about parliamentary accountability, Hawke suggested that ministers be present at Question Time and debates relevant to their portfolios, having the right to speak but not vote. Existing NSW Parliamentary Standing Orders already allow witnesses (other than a member) to be examined and take questions from members via the speaker.

There is a degree of Westminster exceptionalism to these objections as Western parliamentary democracies vary in their approach. For example, in Germany and Italy, Ministers do not need to be members of parliament while in Sweden and the Netherlands, Ministers are not allowed to sit in Parliament. Research has suggested that these Ministerial appointees from outside parliaments usually were not inexperienced outsiders.

Furthermore, the nature of Budget Estimates in NSW means that all Ministers, regardless of what chamber they may sit in, get questioned on their portfolio, and the modern 24-hour media cycle makes it very difficult to completely avoid scrutiny.

While we should be wary of the widespread appointment of non-MP ministers, realistically it seems unlikely that a quarter of a ministry will be from outside the parliament. The nature of our political system, where parliamentary parties have significant input into party leadership, means we won’t be seeing cabinets full of people who are not MPs.

This is not an issue that will go away. Expectations of diversity will only grow given that younger generations, mainly millennials and Generation Z, grew up in a much more diverse Australia than their forebears. A growing divergence between the diversity of our population and those who hold executive power will only further erode trust.

The appointment of non-elected Ministers will not be a panacea to address systemic underrepresentation in Australia. But what this will do is normalise descriptive diversity in NSW by removing excuses when there is absolutely no diversity at all in senior political leadership positions. That can only be a good thing that we will all benefit from.

Osmond Chiu has worked in policy roles in the trade union movement and the public service for over a decade. His writing has also appeared in publications such as the Sydney Morning Herald, Guardian Australia and the Canberra Times.

Image credit: wildpixel from Getty Images Pro

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  • Ehsan Noroozinejad Farsangi & Hassan Gholipour Fereidouni

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