Editorial: Clark should be fixing the mess

Christy Clark complaining about the legislature's "sick culture" is much like a homeowner saying how disgusted he is with his junk-filled front yard.

Clark is the premier. She has the greatest ability to clean things up. The problems are real, although not an excuse for cancelling the legislature's fall sitting. There is real legislative work to be done, and basic principles of accountability to be upheld. Instead of bemoaning the problem, Clark should act. She could take simple steps, within her control, that could immediately improve the culture, MLAs' effectiveness and public respect for government and politicians.

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First, Clark should tell her MLAs to knock off the heckling, shouted abuse and interruptions. The behaviour wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else. In workplaces, people who acted that way would soon be fired. In classrooms, students who shouted each other down with insults would be disciplined or get counselling for their obvious emotional problems. Clark should simply tell her MLAs she won't allow it. NDP leader Adrian Dix should do the same and, if he doesn't, voters should make the party pay at the polls.

Respectful debate is certainly possible. Carole James brought a more civilized approach as NDP leader. And when MLAs know their usual behaviour would look bad - for example, when the topic is the death of children - they smarten up.

Second, Clark should give legislative committees real work to do. There are committees on a range of topics - health, education, children, aboriginal affairs, with members from both parties. But they can't meet unless the premier's office allows it and the Liberals have generally refused. The committee that oversees Crown corporations hasn't met since 2008; the education committee has been shut down since 2006; aboriginal affairs since 2003. MLAs' energy and skills should be used to address issues such as aboriginal graduation rates or addiction prevention. Committees review legislation and consult the public.

Assigned the right tasks, the committees have shown they can rise above partisanship, giving MLAs a chance to contribute and work together.

Third, Clark and Dix should both allow real free votes. MLAs now almost always vote the party line. They cannot possibly believe the party is always right, or that the party position is always the best for the people of their riding.

Some issues demand unity, as voters have a right to expect MLAs to adhere to the main elements of the party platform. But more free votes would mean MLAs could represent voters instead of obeying party orders. (The media would have to also stop treating every vote that veers from the marching orders as some sort of challenge to the leader.)

Fourth, Clark should pledge to stop ramming bills through the legislature without proper debate. In the spring session, the government introduced 14 bills in the last 15 sitting days. About a dozen bills were passed with almost no debate or discussion.

That results in bad laws. It deprives the public of a chance to read about legislation and offer comments. And it turns MLAs - from both parties - into placeholders, not real public representatives.

Despite the often appalling, destructive behaviour and the wasted potential, positive things happen in the legislature. MLAs raise concerns about legislation and policies, and ministers make changes. MLAs raise local issues, and get results. Both sides need to balance criticism with comments on what does work.

Change is not just up to Clark or Dix. Voters need to demand better. That might mean focusing more on the quality of the individual candidates and less on the parties.

And electing more independents is a step toward empowering MLAs and reducing the party wars in Victoria.

Instead of criticizing the sick culture, Clark could make things better. All she needs is the political will.

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