It only took one Bill being defeated in the Senate for the hand-wringing to start about mandates and legitimate government actions being frustrated by an obstructionist Senate.

Paul Kelly went into hyperbolic overdrive in The Australian, going even further than Paul Keating in some gratuitous Senate bashing.  Apparently, the new government is being “undermined by a grossly undemocratic chamber”, with “its vested interests, (set to) inflict much damage on Rudd.”  Horror is expressed at the fact that half of the Senate’s members “were elected as long ago as 2004”, as though this fundamental Constitutional provision – a check and balance also used in the US Congress – is somehow illegitimate.

It is true that Stephen Fielding was elected on an historically low 2 per cent primary vote in 2004, but he was still legitimately elected (due to a preference decision of the ALP at the time). In any case, Stephen Fielding only shares 1/38th (or 2.6%) of the responsibility for blocking legislation. 37/38ths of the responsibility lies in the hands of the Coalition Senators, all of whom were also legitimately elected and have every right (indeed a responsibility) to vote against legislation which they believe to be flawed.

If the 38 Senators are unable to give a convincing argument for their decision and appear to be acting out of political expediency, it is likely be to their political detriment down the track.  All sides can and no doubt make their cases as to the validity of their position and the hollowness of the opposing view. That’s what political debate and democracy is supposed to be about.

While the system which elects the Senate is not perfect, it is demonstrably more democratic than that which elects the House of Representatives (and this which decides the government), as it more closely reflects the diversity of opinion in the electorate.  If Labor had got over 50 per cent of the primary vote, it could possibly be argued they had the majority of the electorate willing to accept whatever they put forward. But they didn’t come close – barely getting above 40 per cent in the Senate – so it is a bit rich calling the Senate undemocratic whenever it decides not to pass a piece of legislation.

Paul Kelly even has a go at blaming the media (which always amazes me when it comes from senior journalists), inferring it is due to some latent anti-Howard bias!

“From 1996 Labor championed the Senate and legitimised its delays and defeat of Howard’s bills. Labor and the media depicted the Senate as heroic defender of the public interest against Howard, an idea now entrenched.”

It is not the media or any political party which legitimises the Senate’s willingness to oppose government legislation, it is the Constitution and the electorate.  It is nothing to do with the Howard era.  As Keating (and Hawke and Fraser before him) was all too aware, the Senate has the authority to oppose legislation.  Indeed, the Democrats blew a fatal hole in their legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate by not using their Senate votes to oppose legislative measures they had previously criticised.

This Senate bashing is nothing new of course. We’ve just had a bit of a break from it in the last three years, when the Coalition was able to reduce the Senate to a rubber stamp.  I often wonder what such critics think the Parliament is actually supposed to do, if they genuinely believe it is illegitimate to oppose government legislation.   I thought it was the first thing students learned when taught about our system of government – that governments (i.e. the executive) proposed laws and parliaments considered then and decided whether to pass them.

The same themes are put forward by Coalition voices following the weekend elections, with another Independent elected to the House of Representatives, and a hung parliament a certainty in Western Australia.  Former Nationals’ Leader, John Anderson, argued that electing independents risks “unstable federal parliaments”.  It’s certainly not surprising for a major party figure to try to argue this, but it really should be shot down for the anti-democratic nonsense that it is.

Since the 1990s, almost every state in Australia has experienced minority government at one time or another.  Nowhere is it explained why a government having to get the support of others to get legislation through the Lower House makes anything inherently “unstable”.  Indeed, at the moment New South Wales looks more unstable than any of the minority governments we have seen in recent times.

It is about time we got over this idea that it is some sort of crisis every time a government is unable to get a single piece of legislation passed by a house of parliament.  Either we elect a dictatorship every three years, or we encourage the Parliaments we elect to do their job and properly examine proposed laws. Perhaps it is the electorate’s desire to see its politicians do more than be obedient cogs in major party machines – lining up unquestioningly to wave through whatever law the government puts forward – which is behind the weekend’s strong performances of Independent candidates and parties like the WA Nationals which announced their willingness to act independently of the major parties. Maybe if the major parties allowed their MPs a bit more ability to vote according to their beliefs, the electorate might see less need to vote for independents.

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