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Coalition plans to bulldoze the Senate

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Monday, 15 May 2000

The Democrats’ achievement in regaining the balance of power in the Senate generated another round of government sponsored bullying about the need to reform the Senate voting system so that the ruling party can control it. Helen Coonan’s proposal is just the latest in a long and inglorious line of attempts by the major parties to suggest they should be granted total power.

Nearly one quarter of the population support smaller parties and independents. Senator Coonan proposes a Senate voting system where the votes of those people would have less worth than those who voted for the big parties.

The constant refrain about the supposedly unrepresentative and obstructive Senate conveniently ignores a few facts that go to the heart of our democracy:

  1. Any party could gain a majority of seats in the Senate under the current system if they got a majority of votes from the public. Despite only having the support of about 40% of the public, the Coalition still thinks it should have total control of the parliament.
  2. Many people regularly vote differently in the Senate than the Lower House specifically to ensure the government doesn’t have a tame Parliament that will lamely acquiesce to the Prime Minister’s every wish.
  3. The Senate has never operated as a so-called State’s house and has never operated in a way that enabled the government of the day to pass its legislation unless it had a majority of seats in the Senate as well as the Lower House.
  4. The Senate is arguably far more representative in its composition than the Lower House, and therefore far more accurately reflects the diverse will of the people.
  5. The Senate in recent years – indeed since the Democrats initially gained the balance of power following the 1980 election – has operated in a far less hostile manner than any Senate in the past which has been controlled by the Opposition party (best demonstrated by the Coalition’s irresponsible behaviour during the Whitlam years). Attempts to paint the Senate as obstructionist ignore the fact that over 99% of the legislation put to the Senate is passed. In the last Parliament 427 pieces of legislation were passed and only 2 were ultimately rejected.
  6. The Democrats alone are unable to pass or knock back legislation. Every decision of the Senate requires a majority to pass, which requires the support of at least one of the major parties.

Do Australians want a Parliament that performs its functions or not? If electing a government means giving an automatic right for all their legislation to be passed without question or amendment, then we may as well save the public’s money, abolish the Parliament, and vote for the Prime Minister directly and leave him or her to do what they feel like for three years.

If we actually want to remain a democracy, then the Parliament should be expected to do its traditional democratic role, which is to legislate. It is not just for effect that Americans call their legislators. That is what Members of Parliament are supposed to do – examine proposed laws and, where appropriate, pass them in a form which they believe will make good and fair law.

Senator Coonan’s proposal to ‘reform’ the Senate would return Parliament to the two party playground that has caused so much damage to Australia and which is being rejected by more and more Australians.

Senator Coonan claims the Senate is a ‘handbrake on progress". It’s dangerous enough now on the political highways, with the Coalition in reverse gear, pressing the accelerator firmly to the floor and the opposition vainly pumping the brake. The Democrats are focussing on the steering and keeping an eye out for safety ramps. Senator Coonan proposes jumping in a steamroller, driving straight over the will of the people and building a bypass around Parliament so the coalition can bulldoze through whatever laws it wants. If she thinks the Senate is a handbrake maybe its because the Government is often going the wrong way.

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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