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Executive Dominance « Previous | |Next »
February 13, 2003

John Quiggin says it very well in this article, "No alternative for Telstra', in the Australian Financial Review (subscription required ) column. (Feb. 13, p.62), The article is about burying the Telstra parliamentary inquiry. John says:

"What was unprecedented, as far as I know, was the decision of the majority on the committee lead by Christopher Pyne, and acting on the orders of Communications Minister Richard Alston, to kill the inquiry altogether. No evidence was taken and submissions were cut off, marking another milestone in the growth of executive contempt for parliament, and in the decline of the committee system."

So true John. So true. So executive dominance has to checked and balanced?

The ALP has the same executive contempt for the Parliament, the Senate and the committee system when it has its hands on the levers of power. Parliament needs to be reformed to strengthen its power vis-a-vis the executive, increase the power of the Senate and make the committee system more authoritative. This would deepen the federal underpinnings of a liberal-democratic institutions.

Which major political party is going to do that? Don't hold your breath for a deepening of Australian federalism.

Now a case can be made. As Jacob Levy at The Volokh Conspiracy (9.58am February 10th) accurately observes:

' practice, the U.S., Australia, and Germany seem to show that an upper house in some way dependent on federalism is a pretty stable solution that can offer real counterbalancing to the lower house and/or the executive.'

In a latter post that day( 2.03pm) he seem to backtrack from a federal understanding of the Senate. Jacob notes the recent 'no confidence' motion passed by the Australian Senate in the Howard Government. He says:

'I've never heard of a motion of no confidence even being introduced into the House of Lords or the Australian Senate or the Bundesrat; because "no confidence" from such a body is just venting. It lacks the constitutional significance of "no confidence" from the house to which government is responsible.'

Venting? This is more than venting. That institutional rebuke is giving expression to a faultline that is developing in the body politic about the Howard Government's handling of a war that a majority of Australians will not consent to without a UN mandate. Venting implies being powerlessness. However, the Australian Senate is a powerful political institution and the political significance of Senate's "vote of no confidence" is more than being just a form of rebuke that has no constitutional meaning, but sounds mighty fancy.

In a federal system a motion of no confidence does mean something-- even if it is not the rejection of the ministerial government by the parliamentary body of the House of Representatives as it is in a purely Westminister system. In a federal system the House of Reps is not the sole arbiter of the approval or disapproval process. In a checks and balances federal system the Senate acts to check the power of executive dominance, that is currently being deployed by the Howard Government to run the war. Its the checks and balances that goive the action its constitutional meaning.

Michael Jennings differs from this account. He has some background material here (scroll down to Monday, February 10). His latter comment on the Senate's no confidence motion here (Tuesday Feb.11) acknowledges that 'the senate does actually have the power to bring a goverrment down, if it really wants to flex its muscles'. He then quickly qualifies this:

"The present government is a right wing government. The people in the senate who voted their "motion of no confidence" the other week are typically from the left. While they could conceivably bring down the government by withdrawing their consent for money bills, they are committed to never do this for historical reasons. Whereas they could in theory withdraw their actual parliamentary confidence in the government and bring it down, this is for them unthinkable. Therefore, instead, they pass completely spurious "motions of no confidence" that are not really what they claim to be."

I would not be too sure of that. Political conventions do change. What is mor elikely to happen is that Howard will trim his sails & go for war with a UN mandate, rather than have a collision with the Senate.

More power to the Senate I say. We need more checks and balances not less. And this may be what is happening behind our backs, due to the war with Iraq. Contrary to the recieved wisdom of most journalists in a federal system the Senate is the place to watch, not the House.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:16 PM | | Comments (8) | TrackBacks (1)

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I would like your thoughts on the belief I have held for some time now, that we elect our houses of parliament in reverse.

I think we should vote for the lower (govt.forming) house on the basis of proportional representation like the current Senate. The house of review should be based on fixed electorates with individuals standing.This house to have vigorous investigative 'keep the bastards honest' powers.

Notice some important benefits. The political parties in the LH can face the polls knowing their best(in their opinion)talent can be protected at the top of their ticket. No need for marginal seat 'pork-barrelling like Kalgoorlie gold taxes for Beasley,Sydney airport issues and the like. Also you can't go to war without a majority in the LH which may need minor party consent at times. Minor parties may become important and less woolly-headed with their polcies.(no fence-sitters or arm-chair critics any more)

The local identities elected for the UH of review could represent an important and less political 'little blokes' checks and balances approach to reviewing the excesses of the political parties. It may also become a valid semi-retirement option for elder statesmen, who are past their use-by date in the hurly burly of party politics but still have much experience and wisdom to offer the people.

Gotcha thinking Gary?

Thinking a bit more about this myself, it has some benefits with easy replacement of casual vacancies eg. through retirement or death since a LH vacancy can (maybe constitutionally must) be replaced with the next candidate on the ticket at the last election. Similarly with the UH a casual vacancy is replaced with the next highest vote candidate of all those who stood in that electorate previously.

Notice also that optional preferential voting can also be included as it is now. This seems particularly appropriate when casual vacancy replacements in the UH are to be considered.

It may be considered that protective safeguards need to be built in to LH seat protection eg once the political parties choices are declared at the poll and their members installed in parliament,those members hold power until death,resignation or the next general election.In other words protection against a democratic coup, by sacking from the party and replacement by political hacks,who were never scrutinised by the electorate.This may also curb the tendency to discipline members to toe the party line always,with the threat of party disaffiliation and subsequent loss of parliamentary seat.

The mechanics and safeguards of such such a system aside, I have a strong attraction for a system of representative democracy, which allows me to enjoy the following benefits: A national govt. which concentrates on the broad brush issues of the national and international stage, unfettered by the need to pork-barrell in the gutter of marginal seat politics AND a vigorous and investigative house of locally in touch 'Phil Clearys' to keep their feet on the ground, and go into bat for me when they try to ride rough-shod over my rights.

Also, the rules for eligibility to be elected to the UH should include a proviso that no candidate can hold office while a member of a registered(eg for the LH) political party. It would be OK to have been a member previously though, including having served in the LH. With the PM and Cabinet chosen as usual from the proportional LH, the opportunity to elect a ceremonial head of state (Governor/President could be handed to the UH individuals, particularly useful if we choose to become a Republic. In this regard perhaps a de-coupling of LH and UH elections might be productive.(removes the selection of a President from the rough and tumble of Party politics)

Yeah, I know, the Majors would resist these changes all the way, but sometimes a man just has to have an idealised view of good government.

I've been caught up. I'll take it comment by comment.
Your first comment.

I am willing to have a look at anything to gives power back to parliament with the proviso that it deepens and broadens our rather tatty liberal democracy.

So I like your proposal for the house of Reps but not the Senate. I would retain proportional representation there.

That still leaves me with the 'party hacks' in Senate problem you mention. Its a big problem.

If the Senate became more powerful & influential that may change the current practices of the major parties. They sure need changing.

More on your other comments latter.The dogs have to be walked.

I have been thinking. I have no problems with your second lot of comments.Other than say that I need a bit more than a Phil Cleary in the House of Reps going into bat for me.

The Phil Cleary's need a lot some backup in terms of resources and researchers if they are to do the job you require of them.

A small office of an independent cannot achieve much on their own. Hence we need things like the back up of permament committees with real teeth; the Parliament to have its own digital channel' on a public broadcaster; more independent public policy institutes along the American model.

The Phil Clearly's need access to lots more information and public policy analysis if they are to do their job--eg on the creation of the national electricity market. That means more resources.

Dunno about comments no.3 re the members of the Senate not being members of a political party.

I would like to break the stranglehold the political party has over Parliament especially the Senate.

Thsi is happening with proportional representation ---increasing diversity of voices---but it is not broad enough.

I am afraid we are stuck with political parties and we do have to find a way to loosen their stranglehold over Parliament.

I am not sure what mechanisms are available to do this.

I can understand your concern about lots of independent/individual members in my UH of review perhaps lacking some particular research skills/capacity.

A lack of understanding across all issues a Govt/Parliament handles may well be a short-coming of any collection of representatives. However my mature UH hopefully will come to contain a range of members with expertise across a range of topics upon which the others may form up behind on a particular Bill.(an ex mayor of Adelaide, a past cane growers president from Nth Qld, a miner,previous health minister like Wooldridge, etc.

It seems to me we are comfortable with non-technical juries at law, why not in reviewing the creation of law? Perhaps these members would become a focus for the think tanks to develop around.

It is not the lack of expertise of the individual members of the Senate I'm worried about---there is learning on the job. And politics depends upon practical not theoretical knowledge.

Its the lack of independent public policy that is my concern. There is very little of it in Australia; little concern aboutr it; and nothign beeing doen to foster or facilitates its dewvelopment.

Its needed because the bureaucracy has been gutted by neo-liberal politicians over the last decade in the name of small government.

It is necessary because a powerful Senate does more than review legislation --it explores the options for a particlar policy on an issue--eg conserving water in our cities----and makes policy recomemndations.

A republican Senate (US Congress) is a policy making body not just a house of review (eg. The House of Lords).