If you are only going to read one thing about how Australia’s federal Parliament works – and more importantly how it doesn’t work – read this fabulous piece by the long-standing Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans.

Among many things, he highlights the fact that the supposed ‘Westminster system’ we are repeatedly told Australia has, is in fact no such thing.  The almost totally rigid party discipline – a relatively modern thing – is one reason why Australian Parliaments often fail in their role.

As the Clerk says

It is an historically accurate statement that the Howard Government, with its Senate majority in 2005 to 2007, was the first government to control the Senate. Previous governments, especially non-Labor governments, lacked that control because they could not control their senators.

Sadly it’s true – since 1901, there have been times that the governing party also had a majority of seats in the Senate. But party discipline, especially amongst the allegedly ‘liberal’ party was never anywhere near what it became in the Howard era.

It is often said that the Australian Senate is one of the most powerful Upper Houses in the world. But any institution is only as powerful as those who inhabit it allow it to be.

There are many choice quotes from Harry Evans’ piece to pick from, but perhaps the most damning – and sadly far too accurate – is the following:

We still have one of the weakest legislatures of the democratic world, especially compared with our great and powerful friends. The Parliament here is under a degree of executive domination that would not be tolerated elsewhere, even at Westminster.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.

(Update – this originally linked to a piece in Crikey; I hadn’t realised this article could not be read by Crikey subscribers. The article was derived from a talk which Harry Evans just gave. I’ve now put the direct link to that in the item above.

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