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

Reforming the Senate « Previous | |Next »
June 10, 2003

I heard Senator Ferris on Radio National this morning over breakfast. She spoke as the Government Whip in the Senate and talked about an obstructionist Senate that was in need of reform to reduce its power. She defended the Prime Minister's proposal for a joint sitting of both houses to be held without the government having to go to an election as is the case now (double dissolution). She--a South Australian Senator--- did so by portraying the Senate as obstructionist by nature.

A joint sitting means the Government would have the numbers to get its legislation through. A double dissolution election---- the deadlock-breaking mechanism provided by the constitution---is electorally risky for the Coalition Government as it would likely increase the power of the Greens in the Senate at the expense of the ALP

I agree with Harry Evans, Clerk of the Senate, on John Howard's proposal to resolve deadlock over legislation between the House of Representatives and the Senate. Evans said it simply and well:

"Obviously this scheme [Howard's] would mean the Senate becoming a political rubber stamp for the policies of the government, as the House of Representatives is now."

In the Oz blogging world Ken Parish agrees as does Tim Dunlop and Alerion at Southerly Bluster (no permalinks).

As for the ALP, it cannot be trusted to defend the powers of the Senate. The ALP is not strong on federalism. They are primarily centralists who see the Senate as unrepresentative, undemocratic and obstructionist as more like a House of Lords when it is actually more like the US Senate. The ALP is committed to reducing the power of the Senate to ensure executive dominance in the name of changing our horse and buggy constitution. Witness the enthusiasm for the Howard plan by the NSW Labor Premier, Bob Carr who has no qualms about weakening the powers of the Senate to ensure the supremacy of the House of Representatives (and the executive.)

What we have here is an example of what the public philosopher at drew attention to in this post: that new forms of domination arise out of liberal democracy. Margo Kingston spots it calling it a neo-liberal, read corporatist model of power. This model is confirmed by the neo-liberal commentators. Alan Wood,as a free market liberal talks in terms of small government when he actually means executive dominance. Padraic P. McGuinness follows suit muttering about the irrationality of the Senate's left wing. The Australian thunders away on the same theme even manging to call the move to executive dominance a shift to small government whilst keeping a straight face. And Paul Kelly supports executive dominance as a solution to the "long-term governance obstacle in the nation's adaptation to globalisation."

The key constitutional problem, as Greg Craven pointed out is that:

"One of the greatest contemporary problems of Australia's constitutional system is that there are too few limits on government power.A popular prime minister with a supportive backbench is like an elephant in the jungle. What he likes, he takes, and what he dislikes, he stamps to death.One of the few restraints on such a prime minister is the Senate. The Senate is composed of an equal number of senators proportionately elected from each state, and it is not normally dominated by either of the major parties.

This means that in the Senate, the prime minister's word is not law. It is merely his idea of what the law should be. This is very frustrating for governments, and there is no doubt that the Senate contains its fair share of irritating dingbats. But in a democracy, a certain amount of irritation is good for a government's soul."

Scratching the body of democracy where it irritates is a good working model of Socratic criticism. It helps to keep the politicians honest.

A constitutional amendment is required to achieve the Howard proposal. It has no chance of passing 4 states. WA and SA would say no to the dominance by NSW and Victoria. The Sydney Morning Herald likes the idea of removing more checks and balances to the executive power to ensure NSW dominance over the nation.

So the reform is a political gambit by Howard to put pressure on the Senate. But underneath the gambit lurks the spectre of executive rule as a technical means to a functional end: shaping Australia to ensure that it fits the requirements of the global economic systems. You can hear the underground script in the background to Senator Ferris's words: emergency measures are required to preserve a liberal constitutional order in times of crisis. What is required is an all-powerful sovereign who must rescue our constitutional order from its constitutional mechanisms.


Here is the voice of a Labor centralist who would like to muzzle the Senate and weaken federalism. None other than Gough Whitlam.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:22 AM | | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (1)

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Gary over at Public Opinion has drawn attention to what is sittign behind the recent proposals by John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia, to reduce the powers of the Austalian Senate through constitutional reform. He writes: "...underneath the ga... [Read More]



Hasn't this nascent debtate thrown up some funny bed-fellows! I wonder whether everyone would be lining up on the same side if it were a Labor government proposing this change. I'd bet my life that the pre-PM John Howard would not have been in favour of the change if proposed by a Labor government, while I dare say that a good many of his present-day opponents might have found the essentially conservative arguments against the change less to their liking.

I find it interesting that practically none of the opponents of the change cast their arguments in terms of federalism, except in passing. This seems to me to be a fundamental weakness in their case: it's all very well to argue for checks and balances restraining the free exercise of executive power, but there still remains a question about who holds that power.

Does anyone today still defend the composition of the senate on the basis of federalism or state's rights?

Is there really an argument for a situation where there is a senator for every 47,000 Tasmanians, but only one for every 670,000 New South Welshpersons?

It seems to me that this is the untested third limb of this debate: which is more egregious - that there should be no checks and balances, or that they should be in the hands of such "unrepresentative swill"?

Unfortunately, a real third option, say, single electorate proportional representation, is unlikely to even be raised in the dabate.

single electorate proportional representation is exactly what we need, too

why should the senate be reformed??????