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The tyranny of the majority

By Chris Evans - posted Thursday, 1 December 2005

The Federal Senate has been reduced to a sausage factory - endorsing without scrutiny critical legislation that goes to the heart of the Australian way of life.

For 24 years the senate was a highly effective check on government power. Now its mechanisms and processes are failing and the checks and balances are gone - unable to withstand the tyranny of a government senate majority.

Both the Hawke-Keating and Howard administrations faced a non-government senate that was a strong check on their power. Both were able to govern and implement major reforms.


Until July, no one party or coalition had a majority in the senate. Non-government parties and independents, of vastly different political viewpoints, shared the balance of power and a common motivation to hold governments accountable and to build the processes and mechanisms of the senate.

The system worked well for Australians and our democracy.

The legislation committee system allowed the senate and the general public to examine legislation in detail: testing government claims in a robust, interactive and transparent process.

The references committee system allowed senators to inquire into matters like the "Children Overboard" affair, the Regional Partnerships Program and the military justice system.

Estimates committees allowed Australians to hold government accountable for the way their taxes were spent. Estimates revealed Australian involvement in Abu Ghraib, the financial mismanagement of defence projects, like the Seasprite helicopter, and the scandal of Vivian Alvarez’s deportation.

The contest between the government and the majority views of non-government senators, with their power to amend or reject legislation, was one of the key political dynamics of the time. The Howard Government was forced to compromise on the GST and Native Title, while it was rebuffed on Telstra and industrial relations.


Many commentators welcomed the development of senate accountability and review mechanisms, assuming they were now permanent features of our parliamentary democracy. Not so.

The retention and effectiveness of those mechanisms was solely based on the non-government majority in the senate. Each measure was reliant on a combined non-government majority vote for its potency.

For 24 years the non-government majority shared a common interest in holding the government accountable. That dynamic gave force and legitimacy to the senate’s processes and functions.

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About the Author

Senator Chris Evans is a Senator for Western Australia.

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