OPINION

Why it's time to rethink our MP numbers

Community resources: Every Australian has the right to stalk into the office of their local member and demand an audience.
Community resources: Every Australian has the right to stalk into the office of their local member and demand an audience.

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.

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.

Members of parliament - upper and lower houses, state and federal - are, among other things, community resources.

Every Australian has the inalienable right to stalk into the office of their local member shaking their umbrella angrily and demand an audience.

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, 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.

We let our representatives nap during office hours rather than demanding they fight like tigers for our interests.

The thing is, when our parliament kicked off in 1901, the residents-per-member ratio was a mere 1:26,000. 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 118 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. 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.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.