Originally published in Canberra Times on December 27, 2021

It was a shock when the 2010 election result produced a hung parliament, but no one will be surprised if the 2022 election delivers the same. The seven-member-strong crossbench is already large in historical terms, and well-resourced, blue-ribbon independents are running in several more seats.

If independents do win balance of power next year, what will the next wave of reforms be?

In 2010, the crossbench used its power to put in place sweeping reforms. Among those that endure are two changes to parliamentary institutions: allocating the sixth question each Question Time to the crossbench and establishing the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) to produce independent costings and economic analysis. While technical, these changes improve the quality and breadth of democratic debate.

The agreement to leave the sixth question in each House of Representatives Question Time for the crossbench is not law, but it has become established practice respected by both major parties. Journalists and commentators pay close attention to Question Time, and an early question can set the day’s debate and inject a plurality of views.

In this Parliament, crossbenchers have used Question Six to give life to policy proposals and to hold the government to account.

Independent MP for Warringah Zali Steggall asked the Prime Minister if he supported truth in political advertising laws and what he was going to do about widespread misinformation.

Indi’s MP Helen Haines pressed for regional news publishers to be specifically considered in the news media bargaining code review and for Inland Rail amenity upgrades to be funded.

Rebekha Sharkie, Mayo’s Centre Alliance MP, asked the Prime Minister where his promised integrity commission is.

The 2010 Labor–Greens negotiations gave rise to the PBO, now a fixture in our democratic infrastructure.

They say “success has many fathers”, so the eagerness from Labor, the Greens, independents and the Coalition to claim the PBO is a major endorsement. But credit where it is due: it was Malcolm Turnbull’s 2009 budget reply that elevated the policy proposal and allowed the Greens to demand it in their negotiations with Julia Gillard.

The PBO gives a respected and independent alternative vision to that provided by Treasury which, rightly or wrongly, is perceived as being unduly influenced by the Government.

Just last week, the PBO found that the Government’s $16 billion in “unannounced spending” is the largest ever, eclipsing the second-largest sum which came just before the last election.

Importantly for government spending on vital services, the PBO has confirmed that present and predicted future public debt is sustainable.

Ahead of the 2019 election, the PBO revealed that the third stage of the Coalition’s proposed income tax cuts would cost $147 billion – a detail that the Government refused to disclose.

Labor took to the last election a plan to make the PBO responsible for budget forecasts and the inter-generational reports, instead of Treasury. Given Treasury’s history of excessively rosy predictions on wages growth, the change could not come soon enough – and it would bring the Australian PBO closer to its overseas inspiration, the Congressional Budget Office in the United States (as well as the practice in the United Kingdom).

Labor has since dropped this policy but, with the idea in the public domain, independents may take it up.

The PBO also needs to be better resourced: along with the Parliamentary Library, its budget should be set independent of government. It should be funded to set up its own modelling branch, allowing it to conduct full distributional analyses of proposed polices.

They may complain about independents and minor parties, but a hung parliament also offers opportunities for the Opposition.

Former NSW Premier Bob Carr recently reflected on one example, where – from opposition – he took advantage of a hung parliament to force the Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service. In May 1994, anti-corruption independent MP John Hatton brought a motion to call a Royal Commission. The police service packed the galleries with uniformed officers, but the vote was carried thanks to the Labor Opposition and the crossbench.

The same independents had earlier negotiated the creation of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, one of the country’s strongest anti-corruption watchdogs.

With today’s crossbench united behind a national integrity commission “with teeth”, you can expect it to be a priority if independents do win the balance of power after the next election.

Another key accountability body is the Australian National Audit Office, which has been starved of the funds it needs to ensure that public money is spent effectively. It would also reflect the Auditor-General’s special status as an officer of the Parliament if audits could be requested by majority vote of the Senate or House of Representatives.

Truth in political advertising will be another major demand. Zali Steggall’s “Stop the Lies” private member’s bill is ready for debate.

The last hung parliament passed whistleblower laws, with considerable credit owing to independent MP Andrew Wilkie, himself a former whistleblower. Wilkie has been candid about the serious flaws that remain in Australia’s whistleblower protections, and the prosecutions of whistleblowers in recent years is likely to convince other crossbenchers.

Freedom of information laws are another pressure point, with the departments’ FOI processing often being slow at best and uncooperative at worst, as Senator Rex Patrick’s tireless work has been demonstrating. Departments that breach their FOI obligations law could face sanctions.

It would be easy to dismiss these reforms as mere process. In fact, what the examples of the PBO and “Question Six” prove is that process matters, and more democratic processes lead to more democratic policies. The PBO gives the Opposition and crossbench confidence to pursue bold policy interventions, with costings based backed by a respected independent arbiter. Question Six shines a light on problems that the Government, and sometimes the Opposition, would rather ignore.

If the next election delivers a hung parliament, we can look forward to a substantive policy debate and serious proposals for parliamentary reforms – which may fundamentally change and improve the democratic architecture of this country.

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