Reform is in the national interest!

The lamentable level of our politics is reinforced every other day by the shameful corruption revealed by the ICAC and other enquiries that are currently taking place.  The imbroglio in the Senate should be used as an opportunity for bipartisan co-operation and reform.  Simple reforms have been proposed that would not only make Parliament more efficient and more democratic but save hundreds of millions of dollars as well.

 The last Federal election has rightly focussed attention on the Senate.  Twenty parties contested the ballot in Victoria, most of them in the hope of gaining 'the balance of power' between the two major parties. The ballot paper was a metre long and one candidate, who only gained around a thousand primary votes, was elected after preferences were allocated.   

 That's taking what Paul Keating once called 'unrepresentative swill' to a new level of being unrepresentative! This happens when there are so many single issue parties that most people vote above the line, and in turn this allows calculated preference swaps to come up with bizarre results.

 There can be no argument with a person or persons like the three responsible independents in the last Federal Parliament, who were properly elected with a majority of votes, having the balance of power.  But the current horse trading and day-to-day carry on in the Senate is not just a problem for the current Government it's also a warning for the Opposition of a situation that they could also face when they next win office. 

 Clive Palmer, Ricky Muir and the others may seem amusing at first but the current guessing game over every vote taken distracts from serious debate about the legislation proposed by the Government.  We should be affronted not amused at this perversion of democracy and shouldn't let it pass.  It may seem an exaggerated parallel but we should remember that it was dissatisfaction with continued parliamentary instability that allowed Hitler to gain power without winning an election.

 The two major parties should have a strong vested interest to reform the structure of the Senate.  Is it too much to ask that they might combine to bring about jointly agreed reforms that could be passed without any fuss before the next election?

 The Federation fathers saw the Senate as a States house that would defend State interests against those of the big bad Commonwealth. Tom Jefferson had the same concern when he wrote the US Declaration of Independence.    And occasionally there is a place for this role when issues like the future of the Murray-Darling River system and balancing the needs of three States are at stake.

 But apart from the way they are elected, the basic problem is that the Senate has become too big.  And 99% of the time since Federation, it has simply divided on party lines over the legislation passed by the House of Representatives.  Fortunately the number of senators and the way they are elected can be decided by Parliament and does not require a constitutional referendum. 

 It is considered that the reforms a bi-party committee should consider as a matter of urgency are as follows:

 •  Whether to reduce the size of the Senate from 76 to 46 senators, that is seven senators from each state plus two senators from each of the ACT and the Northern Territory.   And some commentators1 have proposed adding an extra senator for Australia's overseas diaspora, a surprisingly large 5% of the population.2

•  Decide whether the system of half senate elections should be continued, OR whether the whole Senate should be elected every four years but still two years out of phase with the House of Representatives. 

•  Consider the best way for preferences to be allocated to avoid the current preference lottery with small single-issue parties; Senator Xenaphon has made some sensible suggestions in this regard. 

•  Change the role of the Senate so that as well as passing legislation forwarded from the Lower House it would become an investigative, policy powerhouse, finding and refining as much bipartisan agreement on the solutions to our problems as possible.  It should concentrate on considering and refining policy options and having committees with the legal powers to investigate and tease out issues in the way the US senate does. 

•  In order to preserve the separateness of the Senate and its new role, Senators should not be given ministry portfolios in the government.

•  The Constitution requires that the States have equal represent-ation in the Senate.   In view of the fact that the Senate does not operate as a States house, we should consider whether it would be fairer NOT to have an equal representation from each state, and whether the numbers of senators should be related to a certain number of voters (as in electorates), so that the smaller states would have less senators than the more populous states.

This option would require a hard-to-pass referendum, but eventually there can be no democratic rationale for having equal numbers, when the most populous State in the federation, New South Wales with over 33% of the population has the same number of senators as Tasmania with less than 3 % of the population!

•  Whether voting, and the counting of votes, should be done electronically has been raised following the loss of a few thousand ballot papers in Western Australia. There is not much evidence that a different system would guarantee anything and it's a serious move that doesn't just apply to the Senate. 

Investigate whether our system could be improved by all means, but both these last issues should not be allowed to tie up the reform of the Senate itself; one step at a time!

•  There are a number of other reforms that should be implemented at the same time, like fixed four year electoral terms and some much better and more honest system for controlling political donations than the way the Liberal Party has rorted the system in Newcastle.  And a more democratic way of selecting candidates, something like the US system of Primaries perhaps should also be considered by the major parties.

Australia was once known for it's progressive attitudes.  Women were granted the vote here some thirty years before either the United States or Great Britain; we were the first country to introduce a system of compulsory voting (on the basis that with the rights of citizenship came responsibilities), we pioneered the secret ballot and implemented a preferential voting system to rank candidates.   We were once regarded as a 'democratic laboratory' but all that was a long time ago and we seem to have lost the will to continue this tradition.

Is it too much to ask that both of the major parties set aside their political differences and use their joint numbers to propose and reform the Senate so repetition of the current situation will be avoided for both of them in the future?  Such reforms would be to the advantage of us all.

The Parliament might even get into the habit and come up with joint policies on other seemingly intractable issues like refugees for example ?

Don Gazzard

1:   See Imagining Australia: Ideas for our Future (Allen& Unwin 2004)
      by Macgregor Duncan, Andrew Leigh, David Madden and Peter Tynan.

2:  The Australian diaspora was estimated to be 1 million in 2004, it's the equivalent of the population of Perth or Adelaide, and greater than the combined population of Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory.  At present, Australians living overseas can vote in their previous electorate for six years after leaving, then they have to apply every year if they want to vote.   The authors of the above book propose giving them a Senate seat but to disqualify them from voting in the Reps.