Why Australia needs a less powerful Senate

Why Australia needs a less powerful Senate

02 Jul 2008

Ian Tulloch
Email: i.tulloch@latrobe.edu.au

First published on the ABC website Unleashed on 2 July 2008.

On 1 July the 14 new Senators elected in November last year formally took up their new positions. The remaining four Australian Democrat Senators leave the Senate (along with the other defeated and retiring Senators) and the coalition parties lose their control of the Senate. The balance of power is now in the hands of the five Greens, Family First’s Steve Fielding and independent Nick Xenophon. For Labor to get its legislative program passed it will require the support of all of seven of these Senators.

What will this mean for the Rudd Labor government? What are the chances of a double dissolution? Will the Labor government have to significantly modify key parts of its proposed legislation to ensure its safe passage? Or will the government try the tough approach and attempt to brow beat the Senate into submission?

Of particular interest is how the seven Senators holding the balance of power will vote. We can look at this in a couple of ways. The five green Senators and Nick Xenophon are on the progressive side of the political divide and could be relied upon to generally support Labor’s legislative program. Steve Fielding while much more conservative would also, I think, be inclined to be supportive. However it will be on particularly contentious pieces of legislation that the Rudd government may face difficulties in the Senate. However, despite speculation, this is not likely to be on the carbon emissions trading scheme, the details of which are yet to be fleshed out. If Labor does not include fuel in the scheme the Greens would seek to amend the legislation to add fuel. In order for any amendment of this type to succeed it would need the support of the coalition parties and unless they had a fundamental change of heart this is extremely unlikely. Nick Xenophon has said he will take it one issue at a time. There is no doubt that over time Labor will have to negotiate on some of its legislation and may need to modify or tailor some legislation to get it passed.

A related question is whether the coalition parties would be willing to risk a double dissolution. While the coalition parties may be willing to vote with the seven Senators holding the balance of power to defeat legislation they have to weigh up giving the Labor government a double dissolution trigger. In a double dissolution all Senators are up for re-election and the ‘quota’ is half of that in a normal election where just half of the Senate faces the voters. Timing is obviously important. The coalition parties would be foolish in the extreme if they provoked a double dissolution while badly trailing in the polls. If there are grounds for a double dissolution Labor has be careful not to hold a double dissolution over an issue which is relatively trivial.

Many political observers and commentators have made the point that there is something basically wrong with a political system which enables a small minority of upper house politicians to hold a popularly elected government to ransom. Paul Keating’s colourful description of the Senate as ‘unrepresentative swill’ showed his frustration at not being able to get all of his government’s legislation through the Senate. While he was correct to point out that the Senate is unrepresentative (Tasmania’s small population elects the same number of Senators as NSW) it is not necessarily the case that a more representative Senate, representing ‘one vote, one value’, would change the party composition in the Senate.

What Australia needs is a less powerful Senate, a Senate which cannot block supply and cannot unduly hold up the legislation of the government of the day. Long ago the British House of Lords lost its power to defeat legislation. Australia should follow suit. The only legitimate function of the Senate is the review of legislation. It was originally supposed to be a ‘states rights’ house, however the domination of the party system has effectively rendered this role redundant. The review role could just as easily be done in the House of Representatives with an expanded committee system. After all New Zealand has managed quite well with just one house. There is no prospect of the Senate being abolished and there is only a remote chance that major reforms to the Senate’s powers can be achieved. For this to occur would require extensive Constitutional reform with bipartisan support. So while such change remains a distant ideal our political system will continue to enable a small number of Senators to frustrate the will of a popularly elected government.

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