Senate reform - for whom?

by Chris Griffith
Written 11 July 1995


my face


No Greens and no Democrats in the Senate! That's a fascinating consequence of an idea floated by Premiers Goss and Carr among suggestions to revamp the Senate and return it to a true state's house, as it was at Federation.

In his federalism speech last week, Mr Goss recommended an investigation into Commonwealth-State finances, a royal commission into the Senate, an all states parliamentary committee to clarify federal and state roles, and a treaty council to examine Australia's treaty obligations.

But the idea, referred to briefly by Mr Goss then amplified by Mr Carr, that Australia should examine the German Upper House as a model for our Senate promotes a system which would all but sweep aside the power of the minor parties in federal politics.

Under the German system, the state governments directly appoint the members of Germany's national upper house, the 'Bundesrat'. Note this is a decision of state governments, not a decision of German state parliaments. According to Mr Carr, the state- appointed Senators then "vote as directed by the government of each state".

Translated to Australia, our state governments would instruct Senators how to vote on all federal issues. The States' collectively could veto federal legislation.

This may be OK if the interests of state governments always coincided with the interests of the people they govern, but this often is not so.

Democrats leader Senator Cheryl Kernot argues Australians since1980 have shown they prefer the Senate to reign in the excesses of the two major parties.

Her Queensland colleague, Senator John Woodley, says much of his work involved addressing local public concerns not adequately dealt with by the Queensland government, work which would never be considered by a State's appointed Senate.

He said Queensland authorities had reacted nervously to recent Senate investigations focussing on Queensland dealing with unresolved whistleblower cases, an errant Queensland superannuation fund, and the Eastlink electricity grid.

Senator Woodley said Mr Goss himself was the cause for creation of the Senate Select Committee into Unresolved Whistleblower Cases -- created after the premier curtly rejected a previous Senate call for Queensland to reinvestigate the concerns of several whistleblowers.

Of course, Senator Kernot and Senator Woodley have a vested interest because their jobs would disappear under this proposal, unless they could convince the Queensland government to appoint them to the Senate, a near impossible task. Imagine the Greens Drew Hutton attempting to convince Premier Goss to appoint him to the Senate.

But their appointment would be little comfort anyway if they were forced to vote under instruction from the Queensland government.

Ironically, the current Senate voting system, which allows for the election of small parties and their ability to hold the balance of power was Labor's own doing, the brainchild of 1948 Attorney-General Dr Evatt.

Before then, the Senate was elected using 'first past the post' and group preference electoral systems, which meant the party break down in the Senate was basically an exaggeration of the House of Representatives. Governments with small majorities in the House of Representatives often enjoyed huge majorities in the Senate, and there was little or no small-party or independent representation.

But in 1948, the Chifley Labor Government, fearing decimation by Menzies in the 1949 election, changed the voting system to the current proportional representation method. It made the Senate's composition more finely balanced.

In the short term this, coupled with an increase in the Senate's size, meant Labor minimised its 1949 Senate losses while losing the election.

In the longer term, it allowed for the continued existence of Labor 60s Achilles heal, the DLP, and led to the finely-balanced Senate which blocked supply in 1975.

It is therefore little wonder that Mr Goss, the premier of a state which abolished its Upper House in 1922, may canvass reform of the Senate with considerable support in Labor ranks.

As for the German model, what he and Mr Carr didn't refer to was the other half of the German parliamentary model, the lower house 'Bundestag'. It uses a 'List' proportional representation voting system, which means the German Lower House is a bit like our current Senate in its composition, and the German minor parties are regularly elected there.

Political analyst Malcolm Mackerras says any adaptation of the German Upper House system "might force Australia to follow what New Zealand has just done" -- namely adopt a voting system which encourages the minor parties to be elected in the lower house.

Because of this, Australian Greens such as Senator Christabel Chamarette are not totally opposed to revamping the Upper House if something like the existing Senate voting system was adapted to the House of Representatives.

By doing this, the Greens argue they would have members elected to the House of Representatives where the decisions are made, not just where they are reviewed.

In the end, the reference to the German Upper House model by Messrs Carr and Goss may be perceived publicly the same way as Prime Minister Paul Keating's proposal for an appointed, rather than elected president.

It may be seen as just another grab for power and influence by our already overbearingly powerful and often alien executive systems of government.