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An election is not a rubber stamp for three years of legislation

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Monday, 10 September 2007

Governments are fond of asserting their “mandate” to try to justify any action they take after an election, whether they campaigned on it or not. This usually ignores even basic matters like whether their parliamentary majority actually reflects a majority of the primary vote, let alone the role the people choose, and the constitution mandates, for the Senate as a house of review and a check on government proposals.

When voters are presented with such a limited, narrow choice as to which party they would prefer to form government, it is ludicrous to suggest that the winner of a two-horse race has an automatic mandate to have whatever legislation they like passed without amendment by the Parliament.

Harking back to Paul Keating’s self-serving “un-representative swill” jibe, the Federal Opposition, led by Kevin Rudd, has warned the Senate to immediately pass legislation flowing out of Labor’s industrial relations policy, should they win the election. Insisting on the existence of a mandate before the election has even taken place is taken the logical flaws in the mandate argument to new extremes.


Deputy Opposition Leader Julia Gillard told ABC TV’s Lateline if Labor wins the election, it wants their (yet to be drafted) workplace relations legislation passed by the Senate before year’s end. “We would say to Senators from all political parties they ought to respect that Labor has been elected with this mandate.”

Sadly, the mandate argument doesn’t take into account the many different reasons people may vote a government out and an opposition in. Sometimes it has more to do with being fed up with the status quo and simply wanting to get rid of the government of the day than the strength of a particular policy platform.

For the current Opposition to insist that legislation be rushed through before it has even been written is the sort of thing we expect of our governments after they’ve been in power far too long, not from a government-in-waiting, before they’ve even put their platform to the vote.

An election is not a rubber stamp for three years of legislation, and neither is the Senate. Winning an election gives the government of the day the privilege of putting forward legislation for the Parliament to consider and fully debate. The traditional, and critical, parliamentary role of properly scrutinising legislation has been redundant in the Lower House for many years. It is the Senate that has performed this role.

Even under the current circumstances, where the Coalition has abused its control of the Senate over the last couple of years to seriously curtail the ability of the Upper House to properly scrutinise, the Senate has still been able to provide some oversight and generate improvements and amendments.

Gaining enough votes to form government does not give the winning party the right to demand that the Senate bulldoze changes through without proper scrutiny, public input or improvement where it is believe that is needed. To do otherwise means you can end up with the ridiculous situations that we’ve experienced recently such as having to recall Parliament to change one word of the Government’s anti-terrorism legislation, or as we saw last week, the High Court determining government legislation that disenfranchised all prisoners irrespective of length of sentence was unconstitutional. These errors were costly to the taxpayer and wholly avoidable.


How any government can interpret winning an election as a mandate from the electorate for every word, comma and semi-colon packed into subsequent legislation has always amazed me. If Labor is fortunate enough to win and tries to claim carte blanche for their industrial relations policy, (a dubious enough idea in itself), this is still a far cry from being able to say that all legislation in the industrial relations area should be pushed through the Senate without proper examination, and with no right for the Senate to amend it as it then sees fit.

This highlights how crucial the electorate’s Senate choice is. To have any hope of legislation being properly scrutinised, the essential first step is to ensure that no single party or political bloc controls the Senate. The next issue then becomes who holds a balance of power role. Balance of power involves working with the government of the day, and indeed all parties in the Parliament, to try to bring about the best possible outcomes which represent a clear step forward. It involves finding reasonable compromises between the policies and principles you were elected on and those of the governing and other parties.

Be too easily swayed and you achieve few of your own objectives while allowing things to go backwards, be too strident and no one achieves anything.

Regardless of whether I’m re-elected at the coming election or not, my current term doesn’t expire until June 30, 2008, and there is no way I am supporting the railroading of any legislation of this significance and complexity through the Senate in the space of a few weeks. Nor I am going to automatically support legislation without considering amendments, just because a newly elected government rolls out the old “mandate” chestnut.

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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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