The Australian Parliament is in need of reform. But the options in the Prime Minister's discussion paper on resolving deadlocks between the two houses of parliament
are not the way to achieve that reform. They would undermine the important role of the Senate.
The reform debate has focused on claims that the Senate is obstructionist and unrepresentative. Those claims just don't stand up. Despite the government's difficulty
getting a number of high-profile bills through the Senate, the fact remains that the Senate has passed more than 95 per cent of the government's bills since the last election.
The Senate gives a voice to the people of the smaller states, helping to balance their relative lack of representation in the House of Representatives. The system
of proportional representation used to elect the Senate also accurately reflects people's votes, giving those who vote for independents and minor parties a voice.
They have great difficulty getting that voice through the House of Representatives.
The reason the government does not control the Senate is because it hasn't
managed to get the majority of votes in Senate elections.
But I do think we can improve the constitutional arrangements defining our
parliament without damaging the Senate. The aim of reform should be to improve
the processes and accountability of parliament, not to force the passage of all
The Prime Minister's discussion paper offers two options for reform - a joint
sitting without an election and a joint sitting following an ordinary election.
The first provides that if a bill is rejected twice by the Senate, the government
could then call a joint sitting of both houses to decide on the bill without first
calling an election. It is clearly unacceptable.
Such a system would effectively end the Senate's power to reject objectionable
legislation as governments by definition control the larger House of Representatives.
Without an election, controversial legislation would generally be easily passed
through a joint sitting using those numbers.
Under this option the Senate would join the House as a rubber stamp to the
legislative agenda of the executive.
The second option is based on a proposal by former commonwealth attorney-general
Michael Lavarch. The major difference is that Lavarch proposed that it be combined
with fixed four-year terms for both the House and the Senate. The discussion paper
does not canvass fixed-term elections.
The Lavarch-like option is better. It proposes that legislation could be put
to a joint sitting after it is rejected twice by the Senate, an election is held
and the legislation is rejected by the Senate one more time after the election.
It has the virtue of putting the issues to the people. But it would again change
the balance of power between the executive and the parliament.
I propose a system which would have fixed three-year terms for the House of
Representatives, with half-Senate elections every election.
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