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Why we still need the Senate


The Senate in the Australian ParliamentIt 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'. Majoritarian impulses are irresistible.

To his credit, former Howard minister Peter Reith on ABC's The Drum expressed his support for the democratic principle that those in minor parties and independents needed to have a voice in the chamber, however awkward or eccentric that presence might be. Senator George Brandis repeated the sentiment that same day on Q&A.

The question then arises as to whether some in government will be happy to tolerate the eccentric precisely because they are ineffectual.

After all, Dropulich, to take but one example, doesn't quite come across as threatening to the broad set of Coalition objectives, having admitted his manic admiration for gridiron. 'Our policy is about healthy living through sports — getting kids and young people involved in sports.' Dropulich professes no opinion on the carbon tax, paid parental leave or the prospective intervention in Syria. Obesity is his sole target.

Why the fuss then? John Stuart Mill takes the classic position on the subject in On Liberty considering the 'tyranny of the majority' where 'the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number'. As with 'any abuse of power' precautions were required against it. The majority may be gargantuan in their presence and exude authority and justice, but minority opinions need accommodation and protection. Balancing is imperative. For all its current imperfections, the senate remains one method of restraint on majoritarian excess.

One of the neglected legacies of the Gillard Government was its ability to marshal views across the chamber and work with Independents on fundamental policies. The former prime minister's skills on this were rarely trumpeted, if at all. It was to be a feature of so much during the tumultuous Gillard years: a political chamber of officials forced to negotiate their stances rather than bulldoze them through.

It is that principle under threat as the final votes in the Senate are counted. By all means introduce optional preferential voting, but preserve the vitality of the Upper House. Governments, for all their attempts to draw upon authority, need to be watched. The use of the people's will, for whatever policy, needs to be scrutinised.


Binoy Kampmark headshotDr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. He ran for the Senate with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party.

Senate image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Senate, election 2013



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Existing comments

I've always hated the word 'mandate' used politically to justify 51% of the vote (not necessarily opinion) as having some automatic right to disregard 49%. It's not a constructive way to do things. That said, only one house has the PM and originates the budget etc - it's the governing house and the other is the 'house of review'. What happens with the House of Lords? Can it still block legislation?

Russell | 11 September 2013  

Australian governments need to be frequently reminded that, as a House of review in our federal system, the Senate is supposed to represent the States, not the Federal Government. Senators who are government ministers, with responsibility toward cabinet solidarity, have a conflict of interest, particularly when reviewing legislation which could impact on actual or perceived States' rights.

Ian Fraser | 11 September 2013  

It is one thing to abolish the carbon tax. What is important is the details. if the rewards go only to rich lobby groups it will unfair. What takes its place is also important. If the "Direct Action" policy means a greater burden for the taxpayer and virtually the taxpayer paying perks for merchant bankers and other rich executives it will be both unfair and ineffective.

John ozanne | 11 September 2013  

We don't just need the Senate, we need to transform it and make it the House of Government. The transformation is to elect the Senate the same way as present, but from a single national electorate. That way, every single Australian voter gets a vote on every Senate position, so that there is no ambiguity about who are the most popular Senators. The Senate then elects a PM from among its own members, who chooses the Cabinet from among their fellow Senators. The house of single-member electorates, the Representatives, can then be the House of Review. At least the Representatives will no longer be conflicted between Party loyalty and their electorates' interests. A beneficial consequence would be no need for a separate popularly-elected President. Another beneficial consequence would be increased need for consensus and negotiation, rather than majoritarian "winner-takes-all" bullying.

David Arthur | 11 September 2013  

The aim of the preferential system is to properly represent the will of the people, not necessarily the person. That candidates get elected with very little primary vote is not necessarily bad as they should still represent similar views to the voter's previous preference - if they know how to work the system. We haven't been told how much primary vote the second and third candidates for the major parties get, but it wouldn't be much more than those we are complaining about for the small parties. The best Senate election system would be a 'below the line' preferential system where a vote is valid if the numbers 1-10 are inserted, and counted up to any mistake that occurrs after that. Our electoral system would be much better if candidates/parties were banned from allocating preferences (as is done above the line) or even preferencing other parties on their electoral information.

John Stafford | 13 September 2013  

Why don't we have something like this for the Senate The Constitution was set up for the senate to be a house of review and to look after the States’ rights and that is why there are 12 senators from each state. It does review all legislation with its committee system — but it does not look after States’ rights, being controlled by political parties. I advocate having two more senators from the Northern Territory and the ACT, making 80 senators in total. To overcome the Party domination, I then suggest have 6 senators from each state and 2 Senators from each of the territories be reserved for independents, with the other senators coming from political parties — making 40 independents senators and 40 affiliated with political parties in total. The independent senators would, of course, look after the concerns or States far more than senators aligned with a political party, who always vote along party lines. It would also stop the government of the day having control of both houses of parliament — a reasonably common and most undemocratic possibility under the existing system. Of course, the Constitution must ensure that no political party could help in any way any independent senator to be elected and that no senator could be a Minister or shadow minister. Read more of the idea at this link about updating the consitution http://www.independentaustralia.net/2012/australian-identity/republic/independent-australian-constitution/

Little Devil | 13 September 2013  

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