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Save the senate

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Monday, 20 August 2018


How many senators can you name? If your answer is no more than a handful, you are typical of most Australians. And if the senators you can name are crossbenchers like me, there is nothing unusual about that either. Despite the government having 31 senators and Labor 26, there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of most of them.

That’s a problem, because it’s leading to some pretty appalling assessments about the value of the Senate. It's also prompting some highly undemocratic suggestions as to what should be done about it.

A recent example was an article by George Williams, Dean of Law at the University of NSW.  He argued that the Senate is “a house of political parties” and therefore “the disloyalty of our senators cuts to the heart of the role of the chamber”.

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His concern is with senators who were either elected or appointed under the auspices of one party but are now associated with another one. He asserts that this is now occurring more frequently, can no longer be tolerated, and signifies the need for reform.

Another is an article by Alexander Downer. He argued that Senate crossbenchers are feckless and that the number who resigned due to dual citizenship or have changed their party affiliation has weakened the democratic standing of the Senate.

Yet another is an article by former Senator and Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson. He castigated me for something I never said, bizarrely puts Derryn Hinch in the same category as Cory Bernardi for being across the issues, criticises Pauline Hanson for changing her mind on company tax (she changed her mind no more often than Bill Shorten did), and concedes he knows next to nothing about the rest of the crossbench. All of which amounts, in his view, to "squalid dysfunction".

Implicit in all three of these assessments, notwithstanding various errors of fact, is the assumption that the government and parliament would perform much better but for the crossbench.

Williams wants to make party loyalty obligatory. Yet, as we saw with the recent foreign interference and foreign influence bills, the only senators who routinely scrutinise legislation are crossbenchers like me.  The great majority of bills pass the Senate with barely a whiff of scrutiny from the Labor Opposition.

Party loyalty means Labor senators (who hardly anybody knows) who once supported company tax cuts now block them.  Party loyalty also means that Coalition senators (also largely unknown) supported an increased Medicare levy prior to Anzac Day this year, but no longer supported it once the Treasurer told them he’d changed his mind.

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Downer believes joint sittings of both Houses could help overcome Senate obstruction, except the numbers don’t add up.  The Coalition needs eight crossbenchers to get bills passed through the Senate, and would need seven to get bills passed through a joint sitting.  And let’s not forget most of the Super Saturday by-elections were due to dual citizenships in the House of the Representatives.

Richardson offers no solutions to perceived dysfunction.   

The danger with this shoddy analysis is that it risks being taken seriously. When the minor parties cooperated with each other in 2013 to maximise their chances of winning, just as Labor and the Greens had been doing for years and the Liberals and Nationals had been doing for decades, they were accused of "gaming" the system, mainly by people who had no idea how the system worked. 

That led a change in a Senate voting system that disenfranchises minor party supporters. And yet, support for minor parties in the Senate has been steadily rising since 2007. Despite the new system making it considerably harder for them to win, minor parties continue to be seen as a problem.

While it can sometimes be difficult to discern the principles motivating some of my fellow crossbenchers, especially when they change their position, they are never voting contrary to their own views. That cannot be said about any of the senators in the major parties.  No matter how much Labor and Liberal senators may agree with my small government principles, and they do from time to time, they can never vote with me if their party decides otherwise.

Unless the major parties find a way of increasing their electoral appeal, support for minor parties will continue to grow. But if the major parties heed the undemocratic claptrap of commentators and change the rules to make it even harder for crossbench senators, that support will not be represented in parliament. That’s a problem.

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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