MPs' expenses and the Museum of Australian Democracy

18 May 2009

Back on 9 May 2009, the MPs' expenses scandal still had a comedy touch to it. We were just learning about millionairess Barbara Follett's £25,000 claim for security services, considering Phil Woolas's denial that he had claimed for women's clothing and sanitary products, and wondering quite what Vera Baird was thinking when she tried to claim for a Christmas tree. The stories about the moat dredging, the allowances for a home which was neither in London nor in the MP's constituency, and payments for mortgages already paid off in full were all still to come. Resignations from government post, suspensions from party whips were expected, and already called for, but there would first be a full 5 days of denial, rebuttal, bluff, apology and repayment. But events have moved fast. The old cliché, ‘a week is a long time in politics' has never rung truer.

While further, possibly more damaging, revelations can be expected, debate is rightly turning to consider the wider issue of what has become of representative democracy in the United Kingdom. Voters are justifiably angry, but long-term observers of British parliamentary democracy can scarcely be surprised by the revelations. It is symptomatic of a deeper malaise, we will have all chorused over the past week, hoping, praying, that another opportunity to push for crucial reforms is not lost in the gossip, the outrage and the eventual tediousness of the same story dominating the news agenda for weeks on end.

To keep the wider perspective, let's backtrack to the 9th May and consider an under-publicised moment in democracy in a former British colony. On that day, give or take the 10 hour time difference ‘down under', minister of state, Senator John Faulkner, was speaking at the opening of the new Museum of Australian Democracy.  A tricky gig this, especially for a sitting politician. How to avoid the implicit sense of the new museum consigning democracy to the past? How about some fairly trite and predictable opening words? Something like: ‘This is not to say that Australian democracy belongs in a museum! Our democracy is vital, and very much alive'. That should do it. But why have a museum of democracy then?

Luckily for Faulkner, this part of his task was made easier by the great symbolic significance of the building. The new Museum is housed in Old Parliament House in Canberra, which had always been intended as a temporary home for Australia's Federal Parliament. More importantly, the period in which it hosted parliamentarians, 1927-1988, was almost precisely that in which the country gradually secured full independence from its imperial masters. If anything is being consigned to history by the new museum, therefore, it is the specifically British legacy of democracy in Australia. What a delightful opportunity to demonstrate, even if only implicitly, that the country has departed from the antiquarian Anglo-Saxon democratic arrangements with which it was bequeathed.   

Here, Faulkner is on far safer ground, once his crucial, but coded, recognition of the shameful treatment of the aboriginal people has been granted. Australian democracy isn't perfect, because democracy never is. But Australians do have something to shout about, and Faulkner can take confidence in claiming precisely that: ‘Australians' commitment to democracy is deep, longstanding, and even radical', he said. ‘We have been world leaders in democratic innovations...Australia's temperament is instinctively democratic, egalitarian - and pragmatic'. Can we seriously imagine any British politicians making claims like these, not just at the moment, but at any time in the past 15 years?

As we all reflect on ‘Expensesgate', it is worth reminding ourselves what a visit to the Museum of Australian Democracy might teach us. After all, it was Australia which gave us the secret ballot, which we have done so much to compromise over the past decade through ill-conceived experiments with postal and electronic voting. Female suffrage was introduced in Australia before the great upsurge of Suffragette protests in Britain in the early twentieth century had even got going. The Australians also pioneered compulsory voting in the first half of the twentieth century, since when the UK has allowed general election turnouts to dwindle to below 70 per cent, and below 50 per cent in some constituencies.  

Perhaps, in a spirit of reconciliation among electors and elected, we could start inviting proposals for what might be exhibited in a Museum of British Democracy. After Margaret Beckett's experience on Question Time on Thursday, should we perhaps consider an exhibition educating the public in just how difficult it is to maintain three homes, when one of them is provided for free and, presumably, has no space to keep the caravan? Or should we perhaps just go for a dose of Australian radicalism? Why not re-designate the Palace of Westminster as a museum, just as the Winter Palace in Petrograd became one of the world's finest art galleries after the Russian Revolution?

This is not a call to arms, although there are apparently a few angry voters who'd like to see blood spilled. It's just a suggestion that perhaps the best thing now is for the British to adopt a ‘gentlemanly' Australian solution. Let's move the politicians out of their current Parliament building, preserve it as the relic to the bad old days, and start again somewhere else. Because the problem isn't simply outrageous expense claims, it's the archaic rituals and language, the cramped, opposing benches two swords length apart, the trappings of Mr Speaker and the mace, the increasingly untenable ‘mother of all parliaments' mythology, and the now truly incomprehensible unwritten constitution. It might all take a while but, surely, there's no time like the present. Meanwhile, if the electorate decide they'd really prefer to start with a completely clean sheet, they'll soon have the chance to return new representatives, perhaps sooner than any of us had previously thought. The Museum of Australian Democracy holds a clear lesson for us - British parliamentary democracy as we know it belongs in the archives.

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