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A Government frustrated

By Klaas Woldring - posted Monday, 6 April 2009

There is talk of a possible early election by the end of 2009 and 2010. The impetus for this would be the likelihood of the Senate obstructing important draft legislation for which the Rudd Government has a mandate. This has long been and remains a knotty issue. An early election may well pave the way for the Federal Government to implement its mandate speedily - a very important aspect no doubt - but it won't do anything to alleviate the recurring conundrum of a Senate, which can frustrate the government.

The Government should deal with this issue and if an early election were to be sought it could deal with it at the same time, or even earlier, to the maximum extent possible. Senator Faulkner has talked about seeking far-ranging electoral reforms but has started with the funding aspect of elections. He has indicated that he will also seek to abolish the six-year terms of Senators and achieve simultaneous full Senate elections instead of half Senate elections. A second Green Paper this year is planned.

However, the Senate knocked the proposed funding and disclosure electoral reforms back recently. Senator Fielding and the Coalition voted against them, which is, in itself, an additional reason for electoral system reform. Senator Fielding gained his seat on 1.8 per cent of the primary vote and a preference deal brokered by the Victorian branch of the ALP.


There are clearly major structural and electoral system problems that have thwarted both representative democracy and efficient government in Australia. Constitutionally, the Senate represents the states on an equal basis but in reality, since 1910, it is a party house in which Tasmania is grossly over-represented and New South Wales grossly under-represented in terms of population.

Since 1949 it has been elected on the basis of proportional representation, the Hare-Clarke system. This has certainly been an improvement in terms of representative democracy in that it has provided some opportunities for minor parties and Independents. However, at the same time this has also created problems because the House of Representatives is elected on a different basis, by means of single-member electoral districts, favouring the major parties. This duality has often resulted in what is then portrayed as an "obstructionist" Senate.

Calls by both major parties to reduce the Senate's power or abolish it altogether have been made many times. Moreover, given that only half of the Senate is elected every three years, a further distortion enters the fray. Does the Senate, which has nearly equal legislative powers as the House of Representatives (section 53), really has a separate mandate?

In 1999 a Conference was held in Canberra to celebrate 50 years of proportional representation in the Senate under the title "Representation and Institutional Change". Several specialist political scientists and politicians gave their views on the conundrum presented by the federal and systemic complexities which, taken together, amount to an unmitigated mess. Given that the lower house's electoral system, combined with the adversarial Westminster style of government, are responsible for the two-party domination of Australia's political system, remedies are extremely difficult to achieve.

Ten years later nothing has changed and, again, right in the middle of a serious economic crisis, a government is frustrated.

The obvious solution may seem to be also the most difficult one: introduce proportional representation for the House Representatives. Ideally, this should NOT be the cumbersome, costly and non-transparent variety like the Hare-Clarke system or Single Transferable Vote (STV) as used in the Senate, but the simple Party List system used in many European countries. That system requires the voter to place just one mark on the ballot paper to indicate a preference for both a party and a candidate. It would also be most suitable for electronic voting. Such a reform should make it possible, without much difficulty, to make changes to the Senate system subsequently. What is happening now is that the Opposition, minor parties and Independent are clinging to their blocking and/or balancing powers - and their six-year terms.


It is unlikely that meaningful reforms can be achieved in relation to the Senate unless the electoral systems for BOTH houses are proportional to the votes cast for participating parties. We should also remember that minor parties tend to remain minor parties as a result of the dominant single-member electoral district system, which is demonstrably not even democratic. The existing system clearly blocks growth of new parties. However, as both major parties would stand to lose House of Representatives' seats under proportional representation they won't immediately support such a reform. Here is an interesting perspective though; the two alternative options are actually no reforms at all.

The two other options are:

  1. moderate reforms such as contemplated by Senator Faulkner; and
  2. a combined effort by the major parties to wipe out the minor parties and Independent in the Senate and return to the pre-1949 situation.
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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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