“Fresh” from an exhilarating weekend of high pressure renovation, I see John Howard has been floating a trial balloon for constitutional “reform” of the Senate to allow governments to to put twice-rejected Bills before a joint sitting of Parliament without the inconvenience (not to mention political risk) of a double dissolution election.
The history of constitutional referenda in Australia suggests this proposal has Buckley’s chance of getting up, so I suspect it’s all just part of Howard’s creating a political picture of an obstructionist Senate in order to lend a semblance of verisimilitude to the double dissolution election he’s clearly already decided to manufacture.
Nevertheless, I suppose it’s worth rehearsing some of the arguments against Howard’s proposal. Fortunately, I don’t have to do so in detail, because Tim Dunlop has already done it for me. I agree with pretty much everything Tim says, so I’ll simply content myelf with responding to some of the counter-arguments put by assorted commenters on Tim’s blog (many of whom are frequenters of Troppo Armadillo as well).
First, for anyone not very familiar with Australia’s Senate and its voting system, here’s a useful summary from the Australian Parliament website.
Norman Hanscombe suggested on Tim’s blog that the current Senate system results in over-representation of minor parties. That’s true to a limited extent. For instance, in 1996 the Australian Democrats received 10.8% of the vote and secured 12.5% (or 5 ) of the 40 available seats in the Senate. At present, the Dems are certainly over-represented given the collapse of their vote since the beginning of the Stott-Despoja fiasco, while the Greens are under-represented. That situation will no doubt correct itself at the forthcoming election whenever held.
However, it seems just a tad peculiar to be worried about such slight over-representation in the Senate, when the House of Representatives voting system results in minor parties being hardly represented at all. Senators are “unrepresentative swill” only if you regard the two major parties as the only legitimate political organisations fit to have a voice in national politics. My own view, for what it’s worth, is rather more pluralistic. I regard the Senate, along with the High Court, as the two principal features of Australia’s governmental structure preventing us from degenerating into an elective dictatorship.
Tim Dymond argued that he didn’t “see it [Howard’s proposal] as apocalyptic for the Senate as a house of review. A joint sitting doesn’t guarantee legislation will be passed.” That conveniently ignores the reality that had Howard’s proposal been in place, the Coalition would have been able to enact whatever legislation it liked, without amendment, at any time since it came to power in 1996. The Senate would in practice be reduced to a legislative speed bump. I find that a frightening prospect (and would find it equally frightening if Labor was in power).
Geoff Honnor argued that the Senate was being “obstructionist” rather than acting as a genuine house of review. Well, I suppose that depends on your perspective. It’s undeniably true that the Australian Democrats have moved to the left and become less willing to negotiate legislative compromise since Sott-Despoja rolled Meg Lees as leader. Under Andrew Bartlett, they continue to hew the Stott-Despoja road of competing with the Greens for the purist mung bean “Don’t Mine Gay Black Whales” vote.
In that sense the Senate is currently somewhat more obstructive than we’ve been used to over the last decade (although not as obstructive as the Coalition/DLP cabal that dominated the Senate during the Whitlam years) . However, I suspect it’s a transitory phenomenon, which has been caused by the Dems’ lurch to the left and will be resolved by their imminent obliteration. There remains a need for a non union-dominated party of the centre, given the Libs’ decisive shift to the right under Howard. There is a substantial constituency (well, yours truly anyway) for a party of the moderate centre. I had hoped that Meg Lees might succeed in forging such a grouping, but at the moment she hasn’t even been able to attract Andrew Murray. If Lees doesn’t succeed, there will probably be more centrist Independent Senators elected next time, especially if it’s a double dissolution.
We should also keep in mind that a substantial part of the reason for the escalating number of double dissolution trigger bills has nothing to do with Senate “obstructionism”. The Coalition has embarked on a calculated strategy of piling up dissolution triggers in anticipation of a DD election and joint sitting, introducing Bills so extreme that they would never have been passed by any Senate of the last 30 years. This strategy was flagged as long ago as last November, when an article in the Australian noted:
The real choice for the Government as the parliament approaches its full term in 2004 is whether to convert the normal election into a double-dissolution election. The chances of this happening will intensify with every bill that is added to the double-dissolution list.
The more recalcitrant the Senate becomes, the more incentive the Government has to make the 2004 poll a double dissolution. And once the Government thinks a double dissolution is probably inevitable (some ministers say this privately), the more incentive the cabinet has to put forward more reforms in the hope the Coalition might have a post-election joint sitting majority to pass the lot.
Labor’s approach is to resist measures on the basis of unfairness and unpopularity. The Howard-Costello counter is apparent that Labor is compromising economic policy and fiscal control.