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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Defending the Senate « Previous | |Next »
May 25, 2003

Paul Kelly has rightfully put his finger on a key issue in the Australian political system: the role the Senate.

But what a one sided account. He says that:

"... the Senate and its tactic of obstruction looms as the most substantial [issue]since Federation....the Senate's slow throttle of the legislative agenda of the House of Representatives...."

Kelly then asks:

"Is the Senateprotectign the people or denying reforms in the national interest?...... Who does the Senate really represent? Whose interest does it really serve? Has it become the house of sectional, minority and special interests whose main role is to resist Australia's essential transition to the globalised age?"

Well, he has already given his answer. In case you missed the obvious he repeats it:

"The Senate is in the process of undermining the Howard Government. This is the consequence of defeating a legislative agenda, one no government can treat with impunity. So what does John Howard do?"

Australia needs centralized government, resposnible government located in the Hosue of Rpresentatives. The Senate is obstructionist. It needs to be cut down to size.

And Kelly gives this answer without considering Australian federalism with its checks and balances built into the political system. These are between the executive, judicial and the legislative branches of the federal government and between the states and the commonwealth.

True, the Senate is putting the Howard Governments' legislation under review and some oppostional Seantors are threatening to block parts of it. But all Kelly sees is wilful obstruction by the Senate. Nowhere does Kelly give any consideration to the powers of the Senate or to the process negotiation between the executive and Senate which is what has historically happened with the passing of the GST (Democrats under Meg Lees) and the earlier deregulatory industrial relations (Democrats under Cheryl Kernot).

All that Kelly can see is unwarranted blockage and defiance of the executive: it is the Senate is bad for blocking the good reforms of the representative Howard Government. It is a facile understanding of the Senate's role in Australian federalism.

What Kelly does not mention is the concentration of power in the executive and the domination of the executive over the House of Representatives. The legislature does not currently act as a control on the executive, apart from the Senate. It is the contitutional power of the Senate that enables it to counter the way that executive currently manipulates parliament, and through parliament, to manipulate public opinion. The Senate introduces accountability when the executive keeps itself in office by managing (hosing down) its blunders and misdeeds, and so it is less accountable to the public than it ought to be inbetween elections.

As Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, observes a significant political development:

"....occurred in the 1960s and 1970s with the emergence of minor parties in the Senate. This led to the emergence of the Senate, more or less, permanently not under the control of the majority party in the House of Representatives. That re-introduced into Australia's system of government an element of legislative accountability which had been lost when the party system emerged. We had again the executive being held accountable to parliament in a way that it wasn't in earlier years."

Of course the executive is hostile. Its dictatorial powers are checked. It cannot get its own way. It has to negoitate. And rightly so. As Harry Evans says a geographically-based federalism means that:

"...governments have not been able to rely for long solely on the support of Sydney and Melbourne while ignoring the rest of the country. This has avoided extreme alienation of the outlying parts of the country, in accordance with the main aim of federalism. The fact that the people of the States have voted for the same political parties has not removed this federalist underpinning of the Constitution, although, as has been indicated, the rigidity of the party system has weakened its effect."

Given the current failure of the House of Rpresentatives to make the Executive accountable we should be increasing the power of the Senate not decreasing it.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:56 AM | | Comments (7)


Agreed. The Senate has a place in the overall monitoring of Governmental responsibility. However, that responsibility is only as relevant as the Government of the day. At present, the Howard Government is rapidly making itself irrelevant

Kelly is inheritantly a control freak and can't stand any dispersal of power. It seems to me the Senate functions pretty much as Australians want it to function, which is why they pretty much keep failing to give any single party control.
Good thing too.

Kelly should know better. He was on the Editorial Board of The New Federalist, which had a run of 8 issues ending recently and which was devoted to, wait for it, the federation of the Australian colonies. He full well knows how and why the Senate received the powers it did, and that these powers are more important than ever.

As you rightly point out the role of the Senate is crucial for the checks and balances it provides, more so than ever now we have evolved into a two party system. Until they change the electoral system in the Reps to be more representative by doing away with preferential voting, the Senate is absolutely imperative. Without it, we?d have totalitarianism within five years.

has it become the house of sectional, minority and special interests?

Hopefully. Having never voted for a party that was elected, the senate is my only hope of having a representative with any say. Thank god for the significant political development of the 60s and 70s.

Anyone would think Paul Kelly wants politicans to have it easy and get all their legislation passed without a fight. Pollies should have to work bloody hard at convincing each other about the benefits of their legislation. Don't make their jobs any more cushier than they already are.

Have to agree with you all. DOn't know why he keeps banging on about it. Australians like the system of not giving politicians too much power and are very relaxed and comfortable about it.

Personally I reckon Murdoch's malign influence on media commentators is putting him up for it(but then, I always say that)

Yeah I agree with you Gary.
If the Senate starts blocking everything then I might change my opinion, but the Senate gives Oz a check against executive power, which is a good thing generally.

The Senate does not have a history of blocking everything, whatever individual Senators may say. It has a history of negotiation, review and pragmatic deal making and generally improves the executive's legislation.

So it is doing the job it has been created to do. I do not see that it will be any different this time.