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Balancing the power: Queensland needs an upper house

By Nicholas Aroney and Scott Prasser - posted Thursday, 20 April 2006


Premier Mike Rann wants to abolish South Australia's upper house and have only a single chamber - as Queensland has had since its upper house was abolished in 1922 by a Labor government contrary to an earlier referendum.

Yet others have been concerned about the Howard Government's unchecked power since it gained control of the Senate.

Indeed, Queensland's unicameral legislature exacerbates the winner- takes-all approach endemic in Westminster systems regardless of which party is in power.

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Recent royal commissions, external reviews and whistleblowers have highlighted how Queensland's weak unicameral parliamentary system has encouraged a lack of ministerial responsibility, political party dominance in public service appointments and secrecy in decision making.

These issues lie at the heart of the state's hospitals, childcare and energy scandals. The Davies commission into Queensland hospitals identified poor accountability processes, Cabinet tactics to avoid freedom of information laws and inadequate public reporting of government performance.

Davies stressed that Coalition and Labor governments had released "misleading" information on hospital waiting lists that had on occasion even acted "contrary to the public interest" on health matters.

The present Queensland parliamentary system offers few opportunities for external probing of executive government actions and even fewer pressures to reveal information. Government in Queensland is for major party and big institutional players only.

There are few countervailing influences and little opportunity for representation of regional and minority interests. Moreover, when things go wrong in Queensland, the state's weak parliamentary system makes it hard for the electorate to allocate responsibility.

Like trying to pin the tail on the donkey, the electorate is so blindfolded by government secrecy that it inevitably misses the target. No one gets the blame. No one takes responsibility.

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The game just goes on until the next crisis or, occasionally, the next government. Indeed, despite all the expensive health "fix-its" presently being instigated, the Forster hospital management review's recommendation to establish a parliamentary committee to monitor health issues has been ignored.

Consequently, the opportunity to ensure a connection between executive government, departmental administration and parliamentary public accountability has been missed.

A revived upper house, if properly designed, could overcome Queensland's huge "accountability gap". The issue is not whether Queensland should have an upper house, but how and when it should be introduced.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on April 19, 2006.
 
Dr Scott Prasser, University of Sunshine Coast and Dr Nicholas Aroney, The University of Queensland, are convening "Improving Government Accountability in Queensland: The Upper House Solution" on April 21, 2006. Further information and registration details are available at: www.law.uq.edu.au/upperhouse/



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About the Authors

Nicholas Aroney is a Fellow of the Centre for Public, International and Comparative Law and Reader in Law at the TC Beirne School of Law, the University of Queensland. He is author of The Constitution of a Federal Commonwealth: The Making and Meaning of the Australian Constitution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Freedom of Speech in the Constitution (Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, 1998).

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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