The Australian newspaper is obediently singing in harmony from the John Howard songbook in its editorial of this morning:
JOHN Howard is being denied his right to govern by alliances of convenience between Labor and the motley collection of minor party and independent eccentrics that infest the Senate.
However, Senator Brian Harradine pointed out yesterday that 95% of all government original legislation and 99% of all amending legislation has been passed by the Senate during the current Parliament. It hardly sounds like “Senate obstruction”.
Certainly, the 6 current double dissolution trigger Bills are all ones the Howard government regards as very important. That’s because they’re part of the Coalition’s core political/ideological agenda or wish list, rather than being mere ordinary legislation generated by departments and agencies. But does that mean that blocking them amounts to “obstruction”?
That can only be so in any democratically meaningful sense if the blocked Bills were ones for which the Government has a mandate. This Parliamentary Library Research Paper by John Nethercote discusses in depth the concept of mandate.
Arguably, the minimal requirement for any measure to attract a mandate is that it was part of a winning party’s election manifesto at the previous election. As far as I can see, only three of the six current double dissolution trigger Bills fall into that category. They were all part of the Coalition’s so-called third generation industrial relations reforms: measures which would make secret ballots compulsory for strikes, allow small businesses to sack people more easily, and enable the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to intervene to stop a union carrying out a secondary boycott against a small business.
The remaining three are entirely post-election phenomena, so their rejection can’t on any reasonable view be labelled Senate “obstruction”. The fact that the Australian’s editorial writer simply parrots John Howard’s propaganda so unthinkingly makes it a parody of a decent broadsheet newspaper. That said, the editorial usefully summarises the main options for constitutional reform currently being seriously canvassed. I actually think the proposal floated by former Liberal Party National Director Andrew Robb has considerable merit:
The third proposal, from former Liberal adviser Andrew Robb, as reported in The Australian yesterday, extends Mr Lavarch’s idea by restricting legislation that can be passed at a post-poll joint sitting to issues that the government had campaigned on at the most recent election and the one before it.
The Robb proposal would ensure that only the three current Bills for which Howard can arguably claim a mandate could be rammed through a joint sitting of Parliament. Moreover, that would only apply if Howard won the next election, at which these Bills would certainly be a significant focus of public attention (at least if there was a competent opposition).
Finally, Robb’s proposal would also avoid the current situation whereby the only way a government can break a legislative log-jam by proceeding to a joint sitting is to submit to a double dissolution election, where there is a very high probability of ending up with a Senate full of minor party Senators and Independent ratbags elected on a tiny popular vote. No doubt that’s why there’s only ever been one joint sitting in the century since Federation.
I heard Labor’s John Faulkner suggesting last night that the ALP might support such a proposal (or at least the Michael Lavarch one, which I regard as less satisfactory than Robb’s idea) if Howard agrees also to put up proposals for a 4 year fixed term of Parliament and abolition of the Senate’s power to block Supply. Frankly, if Howard is really interested in sensible constitutional reform rather than just cynical wedging, he’d agree to both these propositions. Neither of them disadvantages the Coalition, and both would improve the workings of the Australian political system. Sadly, my money is very much on Howard’s being merely engaged in a wedge, so I won’t be holding my breath for a bipartisan constitutional reform deal.