Are MPs the right people to run the nation?

Australia is facing a brain drain right where we can least afford it: in the highest echelons of our national and state governments.

The issue is that after each election, the government determines the composition of a Cabinet – a group of senior Ministers – who effectively become the board of directors and make the most important decisions.

Unfortunately, our Constitution restricts membership of the Cabinet to elected Members of Parliament. And, frankly, that talent pool leaves a lot to be desired.

Oh, there are a lot of smart cookies in parliament and, indeed, in Cabinet. But they more often than not have very narrow career backgrounds and many of them have very limited experience in running a business. Which is a real worry since our federal Cabinet presides over the world’s twelfth largest economy.

This lack of entrepreneurial and managerial experience has recently been highlighted by the Australian Institute of Company Directors which has stimulated debate about how we might improve the Cabinet’s decision-making potential and its familiarity with and understanding of the private sector.

The need for change is highlighted by statistics which show that, of 226 federal Members of Parliament, a mere seven have had a decade of hands-on experience as company board members or senior managers. In addition, more than half our federal MPs entered parliament directly from political roles.

The frightening reality is that Australia is being governed by people who have mostly done nothing but play politics most of their adult lives. Oh, there are plenty of lawyers and some doctors and other professions represented. But not a captain of industry to be found anywhere. The gene pool of our most senior leadership group is starved of real world, business and private sector experience.

Other nations overcome this handicap by appointing people to Cabinet who are not, necessarily, members of parliament. The American system permits the President to appoint the entire Cabinet from outside Congress. In the United Kingdom, there is less capacity to do this but the Prime Minister can still appoint someone to the House of Lords and from there induct them into Cabinet.

If Australia were to follow a similar path, we could reinvigorate our political system by bringing-in people of demonstrated high achievement in business, academia and other sectors. It would facilitate fresh perspectives on our most difficult issues and stimulate debate from a much broader base of viewpoints.

Unfortunately, such a reform would require constitutional amendments and Australians have never demonstrated mush desire to shake things up. We are innately conservative.

Still, opinion polling consistently shows our frustration with those who are running the nation at federal and state level so perhaps the time has come to consider doing something different. We could hardly be worse off than we are now.