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Why we still need the Senate

  • 11 September 2013

It is part of the stream of Australian politics that the party of the Lower House assumes, with all genuine naivety, that their wishes embody the sovereign will. This has come to be called a 'mandate', presuming that mandates can only issue from numerically vast numbers.

The sovereign will, by definition, repudiates the democratic sentiment. It requires policing, managing and observance. But for those who claim that majorities are morally superior, defined by their number, problems arise. They get miffed when they see different views expressed. Sometimes, they would rather see those views not so much stifled as abolished altogether.

Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott is the latest in a long line of those who have warned against the workings of those in the Senate. The newly elected senators 'all need to respect [that] the government of our nation has a mandate and the Parliament should work with the government of the day to implement its mandate'. The onus, as Abbott mistakenly places it, is on Parliament to serve the government, not the other way around.

The fruit salad variations that are coming together from the latest federal election are bound to make some nerves fray. Ricky Muir of the Australian Motorists Enthusiast Party in Victoria is one. Wayne Dropulich from the Australian Sports Party in Western Australia and David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party are others.

There are two parts of the discussion that should not be conflated. Choices arising from wonky preference deals for the Senate, supplemented by preference flows is one thing. The time for reform has well and truly arrived when a candidate can get 0.22 per cent of the primary vote and still obtain preferences to attain a seat. The institution of a Senate as a brake on power on the government formed in the Lower House is, however, another matter. Governments of the day tend to see both as one and the same thing: the 'minority' view that deserves to be quashed, and the fringe lunatic party who frustrates the sovereign 'mandate'.

It is fitting that, in the history of Australian politics, both major parties have expressed their yearnings to curb, if not abolish the Upper House altogether. The Labor movement initially opposed an upper house as un-democratic. The conservatives saw value in it as a bulwark against radicalism. In time, the Liberals would come to show that exact same frustration, seeing little value in a 'house of review'.