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The Senate – two sides of an argument

By John Hargreaves - 5 December 2014 17

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As a Kate Lundy fan, I’m sorry to see her retire but as an old political retiree, I fully understand all the reasons why the decision was taken, and wish her all the pleasure of the next stage in life that I have enjoyed.

I started writing this piece when I heard Kate and wondered on the value of an upper house at all. In saying this I declare my bias having served in a uni-cameral system.

In the past the concept of a House of Review had never really been realised. It was just an extension of the Lower House. It is impossible to have a house of review which contains people whose decisions are the subject of that review. Also, having Senators with shadow portfolios goes against the system of a House charged with oversight as they have an interest in pushing their own Party’s position.

However, recently we have seen a Senate oversee the policies of a government which by all reports were not in the public interest and that same Senate has put the brakes on said government. Whatever the Senators’ motives were, the brakes were applied to a government which would charge more for health; create $100,000 uni degrees and walk away from our climate change responsibilities, while giving favours to miners. If it were not for the Senate, we would have seen those policies enacted.

Even so, this does not justify an anachronism.

The Senate is elected through proportional representation, with the numbers of Senators per State determined by the Constitution, as amended. The minor parties would say that this is democratic.

Well, what part of democracy gives one senator from Tasmania the right to hold a government to ransom? Jacqui Lambie is just the most recent. Anyone remember Brian Harradine? And what of Albert Field? And Mal Colston (just to even things up)? What part of democracy gives Senator Muir a share in the balance of power with 0.51% of the vote?

That Tasmania, with a population of 514,700, as at March 2014, should have the same number of senators as NSW or Victoria is ludicrous. That they should have six times the number that the ACT enjoys is even worse.

Interestingly, this Upper House system is duplicated in NSW, SA, WA, Victoria and Tasmania. You might like to know that the sky hasn’t fallen in in the Northern Territory, Qld or here.

For mine, the Senate ought to be abolished and the States which have upper houses should follow suit. The notion of an upper house is a throwback to the British system of a House of Commons and a House of the Privileged.

Perhaps it’s time we grew up politically.

What’s Your opinion?


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17 Responses to
The Senate – two sides of an argument
Mysteryman 9:09 pm 08 Dec 14

justin heywood said :

Mysteryman said :

Our Senate functions very well as a house of review, despite the insistence of certain Riot-ACT contributors. If the Senate did not have half-Senate elections and six year terms, governments would obtain majorities in the Senate far more often than they currently do. That could result in a complete failure of the Senate to be able to hold the government accountable. Perhaps you remember the Howard government gaining control of the Senate in 2005? Imagine that scenario every election.

Half Senate elections and six year terms prevent the Senate from being completely repopulated every election, and preserves the character of the Senate as a “continuing house”. Doing so helps the Senate maintain its ability to hold the government accountable by maintaining a degree of carry-over from previous parliaments.

So if a Senate is so vital to democracy it must be absolute bedlam in those jurisdictions that don’t have them.

But it isn’t true, is it. The senate is an anachronism left over from when the states were at least as important as the nation itself.

In my view, the main point of the OP is that for better for worse the nation elected a coalition government; and to have the government of the day – any national government – seriously entertaining the self-serving musings of the likes of Lambie (and others of a similar ilk), who have minuscule support, indicates that the system is not working well.

I argue that despite the good intentions of those who set up our federation, our country has changed from a splintered collection of competing states into a mature country. Our political setup needs to change as well.

Jurisdictions like QLD, maybe? Or the ACT? I’d argue that both of those uni-cameral parliaments have a recent history of poor of really decisions being made by a government with no upper house to hold them accountable. The Stanhope government was a prime example of one that needed to be held accountable but wasn’t. As is the Newman government.

I’d argue that the Federal system works perfectly well, and the cross-bench is a prime example of that. We currently have somewhat of an anomaly regarding the Senate composition, but that doesn’t mean the system is broken or unnecessary. I think future elections will see candidates more carefully consider how their preferences are allocated and I’d be very surprised if we had a similar outcome next election. But even if we did, I don’t think having some non-major party voices in the chamber is the problem people are making it out to be. The cross-bench is forcing the government to consider competing points of view and in some cases amend it’s legislation. If that’s not keeping the government in check, I don’t know what is. And I’d rather that than a single party doing everything they want without resistance. I think it provides for better law making.

We haven’t even touched of the significance of Senate committees, another important part of the Federal parliament. I’m not going to get into it now, though. Needless to say that the people who make the decisions understand it the importance of the Senate.

justin heywood 7:47 pm 08 Dec 14

Mysteryman said :

Our Senate functions very well as a house of review, despite the insistence of certain Riot-ACT contributors. If the Senate did not have half-Senate elections and six year terms, governments would obtain majorities in the Senate far more often than they currently do. That could result in a complete failure of the Senate to be able to hold the government accountable. Perhaps you remember the Howard government gaining control of the Senate in 2005? Imagine that scenario every election.

Half Senate elections and six year terms prevent the Senate from being completely repopulated every election, and preserves the character of the Senate as a “continuing house”. Doing so helps the Senate maintain its ability to hold the government accountable by maintaining a degree of carry-over from previous parliaments.

So if a Senate is so vital to democracy it must be absolute bedlam in those jurisdictions that don’t have them.

But it isn’t true, is it. The senate is an anachronism left over from when the states were at least as important as the nation itself.

In my view, the main point of the OP is that for better for worse the nation elected a coalition government; and to have the government of the day – any national government – seriously entertaining the self-serving musings of the likes of Lambie (and others of a similar ilk), who have minuscule support, indicates that the system is not working well.

I argue that despite the good intentions of those who set up our federation, our country has changed from a splintered collection of competing states into a mature country. Our political setup needs to change as well.

Mysteryman 6:22 pm 08 Dec 14

HiddenDragon said :

Whatever the reasons at the time our Constitution was drafted, I can see no good reason now why a Senator’s term should be twice (or longer) that of an MHR’s.

So you don’t know why the system is the way it is, but you can’t see why it should stay that way?

There is probably a more eloquent way to say this, but here goes…

Our Senate functions very well as a house of review, despite the insistence of certain Riot-ACT contributors. If the Senate did not have half-Senate elections and six year terms, governments would obtain majorities in the Senate far more often than they currently do. That could result in a complete failure of the Senate to be able to hold the government accountable. Perhaps you remember the Howard government gaining control of the Senate in 2005? Imagine that scenario every election.

Half Senate elections and six year terms prevent the Senate from being completely repopulated every election, and preserves the character of the Senate as a “continuing house”. Doing so helps the Senate maintain its ability to hold the government accountable by maintaining a degree of carry-over from previous parliaments.

HiddenDragon 5:30 pm 08 Dec 14

Whatever the reasons at the time our Constitution was drafted, I can see no good reason now why a Senator’s term should be twice (or longer) that of an MHR’s.

A full Senate election with each House of Representatives election, with Senators’ terms to commence straight away, would surely reduce the scope for a Government’s agenda (even when they have put it to the people in reasonable detail before and during the election campaign) being frustrated by an obstructionist Senate.

A change to the Senate voting system which reduced somewhat the scope for Senators to be elected with a tiny first preference vote would also be useful – as things stand, we might as well just fill 10% of Senate seats by plucking random people off the street.

GrumpyMark 5:13 pm 08 Dec 14

The point about the Senate no longer being a house of review is quite valid. However, to some extent the issue is that the major parties have perverted that review process by forcing Senators to vote along party lines rather than being able to exercise an independent vote which considers the interests of the people they represent. Parties such as PUP and the Australian Motorists Party only have candidates elected because enough people become disenchanted with the major parties that their protest vote actually leads to a skewed result based on cascading preferences flowing away from the major parties.

So, I agree that the matter of proportional representation as it applies in the Senate leaves a lot to be desired when considering the primary vote actually received by some of those elected.

However, it is also worth noting that a similar “preferential anomaly” occurred at the last ACT election. According to the AEC website, Simon CORBELL attracted 2.1% of the primary votes cast in the electorate of Molongolo. His Labor Party running mate Meegan Fitzharris attracted 2.9% of the primary vote.However Meegan Fitzharris is not sitting in the Assembly as Mr Corbell was the beneficiary of preference distribution. Furthermore in the federal House of Reps seat of Fairfax (again quoting from the AEC website), Clive Palmer received 26.49% of the primary vote and his Liberal Opponent, Ted O’Brien, received 41.32% of the primary vote. Yet due to preferences, Clive Palmer – when he bothers to turn up – sits in the House of Reps.

I, for one, hate the concept of allocation of preferences, as ultimately it forces me to vote either Liberal or Labor, depending on which of these I place higher on my voting paper – except on the odd occasion when a non-main stream candidate gets up.

I’d prefer voting to be a 3-2-1 system a la the Brownlow medal count. So my first pick gets 3-points, second gets 2-points and third gets 1-point and the winner is the candidate with the highest aggregation of points. In the event of an overall tie, the candidate with the most first preferences would win. In the case of the Senate (and states/territories where there are “multiple winners”) it would be a matter of going down the list until all positions are filled.

Such a system would do away with the confusion over above and below the line voting and having to put a number against every candidate if below.

I’m sure this system is flawed as the authorities must have considered it and rejected it for some reason but I’d like to know why.

I agree with @watto23 (#1 above) I would much rather a flawed Senate than a single government controlled lower house (irrespective of which party controls it). As these days governments cannot be trusted to keep their election promises and tend to cater to their backers rather than the interests of the country.

I just wish there were more Senators like Nick Xenopohon who actually considers the true merit of legislation before casting his vote. I may not always agree with how he chooses to vote but at least I can follow his logic in choosing how to cast his vote.

Mysteryman 9:20 am 08 Dec 14

The whole purpose of giving all states an equal number of senators is to stop the larger states, like NSW and VIC who have a greater representation in the House of Reps, from governing in their favour at the expense of the smaller states.

As such, it works very well. Calling for changes to the voting system demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Senate’s purpose. John – our Senate, while modelled somewhat on the House of Lords, functions very differently. You should look into the differences. I think you’d be surprised.

chewy14 7:59 am 08 Dec 14

Fixing the Senate voting system would fix most of the problems here.

Get rid of above the line voting and allow people to only enter their preferences to whatever number they wish rather than having to number them all.

As for Tasmania, that a problem with a much harder solution. How about each state gets 6 guaranteed senators and the rest are then allocated proportionally by population?

Masquara 3:34 pm 07 Dec 14

Kate Lundy is hardly an ornament to the Senate in any case. She’s the minister fully responsible for that “Darkest Day in Sport” fiasco in early 2013. She went straight to ground and hasn’t been seen in public since – other than, curiously, backing Ricky Muir’s Motorists’ Party. She won’t be getting on the boards of any companies that are involved in Australian team sports! Or any of their sponsors!

Masquara 11:32 am 07 Dec 14

John Hargreaves said :

to Mysteryman, I know only too well how an Upper House can skew things. Keating had it right. So you’re saying that the current Govt policies are in the public interest?

How do you reconcile a review of one’s own performance with the role of the checks and balances?

I suggest you go back and see the qualifications for membership of the House of Lords in the 1800s and also the qualifications for membership of the WA Upper House.

Even the Tasmanian Upper House now has a party system after decades of being populated by independents.

to Masquara, the answer to your silly question is NO! I am not happy with the Senate full stop. People of the quality of Penny Wong, for example, should be in the House of Reps where she would join Tanya Plibersek and enjoin battle with the Coalition at the cutting edge.

Your silence on NSW Inc. speaks volumes. There are NSW Inc buddies all over the Senate!

John Hargreaves 9:26 am 07 Dec 14

to Mysteryman, I know only too well how an Upper House can skew things. Keating had it right. So you’re saying that the current Govt policies are in the public interest?

How do you reconcile a review of one’s own performance with the role of the checks and balances?

I suggest you go back and see the qualifications for membership of the House of Lords in the 1800s and also the qualifications for membership of the WA Upper House.

Even the Tasmanian Upper House now has a party system after decades of being populated by independents.

to Masquara, the answer to your silly question is NO! I am not happy with the Senate full stop. People of the quality of Penny Wong, for example, should be in the House of Reps where she would join Tanya Plibersek and enjoin battle with the Coalition at the cutting edge.

Mysteryman 8:16 am 07 Dec 14

You seem keen on making claims with nothing to back them up.

“However, recently we have seen a Senate oversee the policies of a government which by all reports were not in the public interest…” – FAIL.

“In the past the concept of a House of Review had never really been realised. It was just an extension of the Lower House.” – FAIL.

“Also, having Senators with shadow portfolios goes against the system of a House charged with oversight as they have an interest in pushing their own Party’s position” – FAIL.

“The notion of an upper house is a throwback to the British system of a House of Commons and a House of the Privileged. ” – FAIL

For someone who spent as much time as a politician as you did, you don’t seem to understand much about how the Senate works or why it exists.

Tetranitrate 7:52 pm 06 Dec 14

Abolishing the senate would only really be viable if we were to change our electoral system to some sort of proportional system – multi-member electorates ala the ACT at the very least.

If we didn’t do that, we’d end up with an elected dictatorship. Queensland isn’t by and means an example of a well-run state.

Masquara 7:35 pm 06 Dec 14

You’re happy with “representation” in the Senate from NSW inc. then John?

justin heywood 6:06 pm 06 Dec 14

….what part of democracy gives one senator from Tasmania the right to hold a government to ransom? Jacqui Lambie is just the most recent. Anyone remember Brian Harradine? And what of Albert Field? And Mal Colston (just to even things up)? What part of democracy gives Senator Muir a share in the balance of power with 0.51% of the vote?

Couldn’t agree more. Added to that, a single house would result in:

– a less complex system for the electorate. If there was only one house, local members would be seen as more directly accountable for decisions. As it is, many senators are elected with low visibility and a low primary vote but once in, they are virtually unaccountable to the electorate for 6 years at least, even though they often wield significant power.

– Fewer, but better quality politicians. There are some good people in the senate – but also a lot of dead wood – not to mention ignorant chancers like Lambie, who would surely struggle to win a lower house seat (at least for more than one term).
We obviously don’t have enough quality people wanting to enter politics – look at some of the people tiny Tasmania is sending us.

But what are the chances of abolishing the upper house? Could it ever be achieved?

watto23 4:27 pm 05 Dec 14

I wish we could have a single house but I think it has been shown why its good to have one. Political parties when they can do whatever they want, rarely have the best interests as a whole, its always ideologically motivated. At the moment the coalition keeps going on and on like the only way to fix the economy is by cutting the 2 things we should not be cutting, health and education.

Same could be said the other way around, If Labor had its way with everything it wouldn’t be for the good of the country as whole.

Now if we want to argue about the makeup of the senate and is there a better way to get a more representative selection, then there is a valid argument there. I’m personally glad the senate exists right now, because the extremist policies coming from the right are very scary and selfishly motivated.
I’m sure if Labor thought they had free reign they’d put a lot of policies through that are also to the detriment of the country.

I’d think a single house with a level of direct democracy would maybe work. But how do you decide when a policy should be voted on by the people and how would you manage such a mechanism?

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