In light of the recent and continuing furore over the chaotic senate elections is it time to ask why we have a senate? Is it really necessary? What does it do? Would the absence of a senate seriously affect Australia's democracy? Is it there simply because everyone else has an upper house? Does it serve an essential purpose? Is it worth the cost?
To abolish the upper house is not such a strange idea. Other democracies have done so, New Zealand, Sweden and Denmark, for example and the sky has not fallen in. Queensland and the Northern Territory have also abolished their upper chambers and do not seem any the worse for it than other Australian states which still maintain their expensive Councils, while the ACT never had one. Uni-cameralism is the favoured Government style world-wide and uni-cameral parliaments outnumber bi-cameral parliaments and remain stable democracies.
The popular view of Australia's upper house is that it is there to give a voice in the Federal Government to the states, as a house of review, and a control on the possible excesses of the lower house-which doesn't sound very onerous for such an expensive institution. But does it carry out these roles?
In giving a voice to the states senators are indeed elected on a state basis, with equal numbers of senators from each state regardless of population, (12 at this time, plus 2 from each Territory, which adds up to 76 noble senators). They are elected in a complicated preferential system (which many voters find mysterious to say the least) and which is difficult to administer as demonstrated in the recent election. The senators are there to represent their states, in practice however they represent their parties and the senate is not a states house but a party house. Senators mostly follow the party line, sitting in their magnificent chamber on government and opposition benches and duplicating the arrangement in the House of Representatives and usually simply confirm the decisions of the elected House of Representatives.
When was the last time (or even the first time) we heard a Senator speaking on behalf of his/her state? Perhaps Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine (Senator from 1975–2005) is the best example of this, but as an independent he was in a pivotal and unusual position and used his power to secure funding for Tasmania on a range of policies: such as securing extra funding for the Tasmanian environment and telecommunications in return for his support for the one-third sale of Telstra. The other eleven Tasmanian senators voted on party lines for this legislation. Is this democracy?
Senator Barnaby Joyce recently claimed that the senate 'has never operated as a states house in living memory. It is really a political party's house' he said- and he should know.
Independents and small parties in the senate usually represent only their own interests and if they happen to hold the balance of power in a hung senate often use their vote to hamper or defeat legislation. Think of Meg Lees when the Democrats held the balance of power and used it to change the provisions in the GST. Clearly the honourable senators are usually obedient party hacks and follow the party line, the party is after all from where they draw their power.
The house of review theory is also unconvincing. While the two houses have equal powers, in practice the senate rarely initiates legislation and rarely rejects it. Most bills pass smoothly through both houses with little delay. The senate committee system whereby bills can be sent to a senate committee for further consideration is sometimes held up as a review process and at first glance seems a reasonable solution to disputed legislation, but in reality it is often used as a delaying tactic because committee enquires can take a very long time. Senate committees have immense powers. Conducting inquiries in each state, they can call upon business, public individuals, and private companies to give evidence, all of which means it can take many months at huge expense to provide a report. Nor does the system work remarkably well because governments are often reluctant to send legislation to committees and committee reports are frequently disregarded or partially recognised.
The senate exists because the Australian Constitution of 1901 decreed that: 'Federal Parliament ... shall consist of the Queen, a Senate and a House of Representatives'. (Section 1) Why did the fathers of Federation, who drew up the Constitution, decide that there should be a senate? The simple answer is because Britain has a House of Lords. Australia's Parliament is a direct descendant from Britain's Westminster Parliament and its Houses of Lords and Commons and the Senate is Australia's version of the British Upper house, but without the Lords. Instead of lords we have senators, who, while not actually lords generally consider themselves to be a superior breed to the representatives, after all it is known as the upper house.
The idea of having an upper house as a states' house was copied, together with the name, from the Constitution of the United States, which also drew on the Westminster system for its legislative body, the Congress, but where the US has two senators for each state, Australia has twelve. Even Tasmania, with a population of about 500,000 compared to New South Wales with a population of 7,240,000, has 12 senators, plus the five Representatives conferred upon it as an original state, which makes for seventeen parliamentarians representing 500,000 people. It is figures like this that are the basis of the accusation that the senate is undemocratic and senators 'unrepresentative swill' (an oft-quoted comment from Paul Keating).
History and the British system is also the answer to why the senate is known as the Upper House and the House of Representatives the Lower House, even though the executive power resides in the lower house, making it the more powerful. While it is an easier term to use than the full names, it is misleading, and underlines the fact that the senate is an anachronism.
To go back further in history, we also owe the bi-cameral structure of the Federal Parliament to the Colonial (state) Parliaments of pre-Federation Australia, which were also faithfully modelled on the British system. Before Federation (1901) each state, (then British Colony) was self-governed by a bi-cameral parliament consisting of a Governor, appointed by Britain, a Council and an elected Assembly. This system evolved from the earlier rule of a Governor, appointed by Britain, and a Council, appointed by the Governor.