Would the last person to be ruled ineligible, please turn out the lights?

The citizenship crisis rolls on. Last week, The Griffith Innovation Hub published a piece I wrote, reflecting on some aspects of the issue. Within 24 hours it was out of date, as yet another Senator resigned on citizenship grounds.

At the same time, the government announced it was cancelling a sitting week for the House of Representatives. This was based on the improbable claim that it was to allow the same-sex marriage bill debate to conclude in the Senate before the bill came to the House. This is a lose-lose argument from the government. Even if they are to be believed, it just suggests they are so incompetent that they are incapable, despite the support of thousands of public servants and parliamentary staff, of doing more than one thing at a time. What is far more likely, as the most experienced commentators immediately concluded, was that they did not want to lose control of parliamentary votes in the period before Barnaby Joyce was returned after his by-election. Which in turn raises questions of judgement. In particular, what are they hiding, that they would go to the extent of cancelling parliament rather than face even the possibility of a Royal Commission on the banks? It appears the exact kind of move that alienates voters from government. Scrutiny of the banks is a rare issue: one that unites factions as diverse as the Greens, One Nation, Labor, and parts of the National Party. Cancelling parliamentary activity to avoid something so widely supported in politics and in the community seems a poor political judgement.

Either way, these last few weeks have highlighted the extent to which policy work is being impeded. The Prime Minister, the media, the Cabinet, backbenchers, the Opposition - everyone is distracted by the citizenship crisis and its various ripple effects. As Michelle Grattan has noted, the Queensland State election result just increases the importance of the by-election in Bennelong. After that, MPs will have nearly two months to think about what the new parliamentary year will hold. Politics will continue to detract from policy. Its going to be a long summer.

Constitutional reform

It is hard to believe that more politicians have fallen foul of Section 44 of the Constitution since I wrote about the issue in July. But they have. Lots of them. In the intevening period there have been many more doubts raised, a High Court case, and eight members of parliament are now gone: Senators Culleton and Day; then more recently, because of citizenship issues, Senators Ludlam, Waters, Nash, Roberts, Parry, and Member of the House of Representatives and Deputy PM, Barnaby Joyce. The Labor party has so far emerged unscathed, though some may believe it is just a matter of time before that changes. The internal tensions the situation is causing within the government are enormous. The latest subject of debate is a proposal that all members of parliament be scrutinised through some sort of independent citizenship audit. Both the Prime Minister and Labor are generally unsupportive of the idea, but both sides of politics have backbenchers who think it would be the best way to clear the air.

An audit would have advantages, but face all sorts of difficulties. It could never actually give a member of parliament a definitive all-clear: only the court, if asked, can do that. And what happens when an election is called: will candidates expect to be able to ask an auditor to check their documentation? If not, then the exercise could be claimed to just provide cover for incumbents, but the logistics of making it more widely available rule such an option out. 

The real agenda should be constitutional change, as I explained in this longer post for Griffith University's Policy Innovation Hub. It is hard to know whether major parties will be willing to drive the process forward, though, once the immediate crisis is over.

Regulatory design and review - lessons from Grenfell Tower

Image credit: duncan c / flickr

Image credit: duncan c / flickr

I have just read an excellent review by Tayler Lonsdale of the issues leading to the catastrophic fatal fire in Grenfell Tower in London. It is a well-written and accessible discussion that avoids the understandable vilification of those who have cut regulatory oversight and 'red tape', while still bluntly identifying important process failures. 

Lonsdale describes four key message for regulatory design:

  • Complexity kills. Safety regulations should be as simple and straightforward as possible to ensure compliance and protect lives.
  • Timely regulatory review is critical. The timely review of existing regulations should never be sacrificed to meet arbitrary regulatory reduction goals.
  • Regulators should take public comments seriously. Incorporating public feedback into rule making in a timely and transparent manner would improve regulatory effectiveness.
  • Regulations should be stricter for government-operated entities.

Hamilton Stone does work in social service fields where regulation is complex and where government-operated entities are important parts of the service mix. It makes Lonsdale's last point, about how to regulate government-operated entities, particularly relevant. A common solution over the last three decades has been to privatise them or transfer those functions into the non-government space.

However, we have in many areas reached the limit of this strategy (and in some service spaces have probably moved beyond what would have been wise).

Here is what Lonsdale says about regulating government entites, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire:

"Financial and criminal legal liability was not an adequate incentive for the local government council who owned Grenfell to mitigate safety risks. For government entities that cannot ‘go out of business’, prescriptive and strict safety regulations should be applied as an additional fail-safe measure with third-party audits rather than self-inspections.

If there is a tacit agreement between inspectors and building owners that the regulations will not be enforced due to budgetary constraints, the government should either adjust the budget to cover the gap or else make the safety versus affordability trade-off transparent to residents."

This message will be unpopular with many governments and regulatory designers. There is a challenging implication here: service providers should be subject to different tests depending on their ownership status rather than on the services they deliver. 

Eighty people died in Grenfell Tower. The resulting scrutiny of compliance regulation must be allowed to challenge what we think about regulation. We should strive to learn something from such tragic, preventable deaths.

Setting the bar too high? More on section 44 of the Constitution

Another week, another Senator in trouble, it seems. Unlike his Greens colleagues who resigned over citizenship problems, Senator Matthew Canavan is preparing to ask the High Court to rule on his eligibility to sit as a member of parliament. Australian born, Canavan  says his mother did the paperwork for him to be recognised as an Italian citizen, and he says he wasn't even aware of it. The citizenship provisions aren't the only problem - all of section 44 of Australia's constitution needs an overhaul, to help ensure that voters are getting to choose and keep the candidates they want. As I wrote on Griffith University's Policy Innovation Hub blog today, now would be a good time for political leaders and the broader community to be having this conversation.