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Howard’s Senate reforms: another nail in the coffin of our democracy

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Friday, 7 November 2003

Parliamentary reform is not a sexy issue that will get crowds on the streets chanting:

What do we want?

"Democracy for the people through the separation of powers, proportional representation, and mechanisms for transparency and accountability."


When do we want it?

"When passed by the majority of people in the majority of states in a referendum as advised by the Constitution."

But what the Parliament does is very important. The laws we pass - or do not pass - impact on the lives of millions of Australians.

The plans released by the Prime Minister John Howard would mean less power for the Senate, less power for the Australia people and a lot more power for the Prime Minister and his Party. And tellingly, the PM's plans address a problem that does not exist. The Senate is not obstructive.

In this Parliament alone, the Senate has passed 271 bills. Only a little more than two per cent of bills have been rejected. Contrast that to 1975, when more than one in four bills (27 per cent) were blocked by the Coalition-controlled Senate, including supply bills.

The Senate has functioned much better over the past 20 years - since the Democrats have earned the balance of power. One of the Democrats' founding principles is that we will not use that most crushing of the Senate's powers - the ability to block supply. The Liberals have and will, and their own statements show that the Greens would if they could. The Democrats, by contrast, are happy to abolish the ability of the Senate to block supply and are primarily interested in making the system work.


The Democrats will not support the Howard Government's health and higher education packages, but we did not just reject them out of hand and go home. We initiated and are participating in public inquiries to examine what their impact would be, and to look for real solutions.

When John Howard was in opposition, he acknowledged the importance of the Senate, describing it as "one of the most democratically elected chambers in the world".

Despite his earlier words, however, Mr. Howard is now basically telling Australians "You got it wrong" by not giving him a majority in both houses of Parliament. He is attacking the Senate because we are doing our job in scrutinising legislation and holding his Government to account.

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Article edited by Rick Brown.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited extract of a speech Senator Bartlett gave to the National Press Club on the 9 October 2003. The full transcript is available here.

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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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