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The senate is where governments need control to govern

By Peter Baume - posted Monday, 11 November 2013

The House of Representatives provides the thunder and lightning. The Senate is quiet but brings governments down. The House of Representative votes are pre-determined but Senate votes matter and are often unpredictable.

Are people advising the Government doing what it should be doing – looking back at history to see what they can learn from past events that is relevant today? It should – otherwise the old cliché will operate and they will repeat mistakes that others have made.

One area of the past that is relevant to today is to see what happened in Australia in 1974 and 1975. For those with poor memories (or for those who were too young), Gough Whitlam won the House of Representatives election in 1974 (and therefore became Prime Minister) but he did not win in the Senate. He never had a Senate majority and, because of that (and not just because of disgraceful behaviour by two State premiers) was defeated in the Senate in the 1975 confrontation.


Tony Abbott does not have a Senate majority and will not have one after July 1st. His contentious legislation will be held up or defeated in the Senate before July 1st and there will be difficulties in patching together a Senate majority for that legislation when the new Senate assembles after July 1st. There are many ways of holding legislation up and Senators know how to use (and officers of the Senate will advise them if they do not) the various methods open to them.

The "magic number" (for a majority of votes) in the Senate is 39. The Government is short of that number by about a half dozen and has no chance of reaching that number before June 30th. After that date, only a herculean effort at coalition building will get the Government to that number – and new Senators will put a high price on the vote they bring with them. The Government has so far not shown us that it is any good at building coalitions – yet that was what I was doing continuously when the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate.

Every Senator is elected and the right of each Senator to be present is as great as that of any other parliamentarian . You might believe that the voting system needs to be changed, or that the compromise on which Federation was based is outmoded – those are separate (valid) questions – at present the voting system is what it is (the Hare-Clark system of proportional voting) and Senators are elected under that system. There is an old political aphorism that says that one cannot hold government if one does not have power – there are three co-equal arms to the Government of Australia, one of which is the House of Representatives, one the Senate and one the Crown. Tony Abbott and his Government control only one of those three arms directly, although the third will act on advice given to it by the Government of the day. The current Government does not control the Senate - the remaining arm of government. No amount of whining or political grandstanding will alter that fact. Gough Whitlam never accepted it – and was defeated in the Senate partly because of his failure to understand.

The Greens are implacable in their opposition to legislation to remove the obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They will not budge. Their public will demand that they stand firm. Any talk of a "mandate" (as one foolish Minister did recently) will fall on deaf ears – both political ears and public ears. The Greens have been consistent on this matter – even their opponents will concede that. The Labor Party will not vote against legislation that it passed and which is attacked now by a political opponent. A new Leader of the Opposition is starting a campaign to build up his political credits and this issue is one that he will grab quickly and use well. That leaves the new independents who are unknown quantities politically – by the way, it would be easy to eliminate many of them by requiring aspiring parties to reach a modest threshold vote before people nominated by them are allowed to be elected. One might ask where new Senators' self-interest lies on each contentious Abbott issue.

When I was Whip in the Senate, the Leader of the day told me that the only essential bills were the Budget Bills and the Supply Bills and that anything else was "cream". Maybe the Abbott Government should remember this – after all, it is these named bills that allow it to govern, not the other bills. If it is prevented by Senate hostility from putting what it wants into effect, then it can make this known to the public – after all, it could say, 'we tried and the wicked Senate would not let us proceed'. This might be a more acceptable strategy than the "crash through or crash" plan which it now seems to be following. The Government would be foolish too to go for a double dissolution election – that course is unnecessary and fraught with dangers of its own.

It will be an interesting tactical year ahead of us.

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About the Author

Professor Peter Baume is a former Australian politician. Baume was Professor of Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) from 1991 to 2000 and studied euthanasia, drug policy and evaluation. Since 2000, he has been an honorary research associate with the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW. He was Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1994 to 2006. He has also been Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Drug Agency. He was appointed a director of Sydney Water in 1998. Baume was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 1992 in recognition of service to the Australian Parliament and upgraded to Companion in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours List. He received an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University in December 2004. He is also patron of The National Forum, publisher of On Line Opinion.

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