Parliament’s back in session, Peter Slipper is running the show as speaker of the House, and questions on the NT intervention, a people’s bank and MPs’ tax returns have emerged in OurSay’s People’s Question project.

A question from Emily Price raises the government’s Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill, introduced by Jenny Macklin in November:

“The proposed Stronger Futures legislation has not been consented to by communities in the NT. The legislation is also a continuation of the NT intervention, which has been criticised by representatives of the United Nations as being in breach of international law. Will the government please recommend the passing of a motion that the legislation be assessed by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights?”

The new Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights will be established in the current sittings after the government’s human rights package passed Parliament at the end of last year, with the committee’s role to assess whether legislation is compatible with human rights. The Stronger Futures Bill would make for an interesting first-up test of the committee’s role, which will rely heavily on UN conventions in assessing legislation.

Geoff Pain has picked up on the idea of a people’s bank floated two years ago:

“To the Treasurer: an Australia Post People’s Bank would allow taxpayers to easily regain the advantages of government owned and operated banking. All of the electronic transfer infrastructure already exists and it would provide job opportunities in the smallest communities where the big four and their co-branded derivatives don’t want to open a branch. It would not charge exorbitant illegal fees and would always follow Reserve Bank leads on interest rates. Operating surplus could assist budget bottom line. Will you make it happen?”

The idea of a “people’s bank” was raised by the “Six Economists” who urged a new financial inquiry and a range of other measures in 2009 in the aftermath of the financial crisis with Australia Post proposed as the vehicle for increasing competition in a market dominated by the big four banks. The letter raised 14 specific questions, each of them meaty issues. I wrote about the issue at the time (in the shadow of the GFC and with Kevin Rudd at the helm):

“It merits serious consideration because the long-term project – pursued by both sides of politics – to maintain competition in lending in Australia is failing. It depended on the availability of externally-sourced capital for the residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) market, which was fine while the world financial system was spilling over with finance but ended the moment the crisis hit – especially after the bank guarantee massively strengthened the hand of the major banks over what was left of the non-bank lending sector.

“… It’s hard to see what downsides there are for the government in conducting the sort of inquiry urged in the letter. It has handled the triage stage of the financial crisis very well. Now is the time to take a step back and consider an overarching strategy.

“How long until the government is again confronted with one of the banks unilaterally raising interest rates, particularly for business lending? The problem of Australia’s banking oligopoly needs a long-term solution.”

And just to highlight that this issue is just as relevant as it was in July 2009, there’s currently speculation that, in the absence of an RBA rate cut, ANZ is considering lifting interest rates despite recent claims from banks about rising funding costs repeatedly being discredited.

Peter Asnins challenged MPs to reveal their tax returns

“To all members of government in both houses, as you can see, in the run up to the election in the US, candidates have chosen to make their tax returns public. Would you be prepared to publish your tax returns for the past five years so the Australian public can see the effective rate of tax paid. Income would be assessed as salary, tax free allowances, dividends and capital gains.”

Asnins’s question might be brushed aside as not falling within any minister’s responsibility; MPs and senators are currently required to declare pecuniary interests via a paper-based system (Open Australia maintains an electronic record of them) but tax returns are a different matter; attention would focus on MPs like Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Garrett, Barry Haase and Mark Dreyfus rather than the majority of MPs who have no income or wealth outside their political careers.

A notable absence from the questions so far is foreign policy, beyond a question on the government’s treatment of Julian Assange (which is currently one of the top five questions).

Geoff Pain also proposed an intriguing question about the use of Australian uranium in armaments such as armour-piercing ammunition and the exposure of Australian troops to uranium dust in previous and current conflicts. Syria and the continued presence of a Syrian ambassador in Australia looks to be a potential issue, as is the looming budget which is now 12 weeks away.

Nominations and voting close on March 4.

*Crikey and OurSay are giving you the opportunity to get your question asked in the House of Representatives. Each week Crikey will feature a new reader question, and will look into the where/how and why of the issue and the politics behind it. A mystery member of parliament has agreed to take part in this OurSay initiative and take the People’s Question to Question Time in March. Start hitting OurSay with questions here: @OurSayAust,  @OurSayPeoplesQ (#PeoplesQ #auspol) or on Facebook. Or go to thepeoplesquestion.oursay.org for more information.

Peter Fray

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