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A bastion against democracy?

By Sylvia Marchant - posted Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Australian Senate is an enigma, a mystery to many citizens. Not many have a clear idea of its role, activities, or membership. That the Senate is part of Australia’s Federal Parliament and is a “States House” where all States are equally represented, is occasionally, and correctly, acknowledged, though not always with any confidence, and a favourite comment is that it is a house of review. Research however suggests another, underlying and more perturbing, reason for its establishment - it was to be a bastion against democracy.

Consider some of these remarks from the records of the Federal Conventions of the 1890s, where the Australian Constitution was hammered out and a bicameral parliament, complete with an upper house, was agreed upon.

An upper house, it was considered, would be “an august and experienced body” and prevent “democratic ascendancy”; “limit potential excesses of first chambers”; be a safeguard against the “advancing tide of democracy”, “temper the possible democratic excesses of the lower chamber”; and militate against the “spectacle of a democracy carried hither and thither by violent impulses to opposite points of the compass within short periods of time”. A situation that might easily come about without a more judicious upper house, to restrain the impetuous lower house.


Democracy was viewed by many as the “tyranny of the majority” and manhood suffrage it was feared, could become the “basis of a tyranny”. Henry Parkes, often regarded as the Father of Federation, believed that an upper house was needed to bring “the conservatism of maturity of judgment, of distinction of service, of length of experience, and weight of character”, to Parliament. All attributes supposedly sadly lacking in lower houses - and, some would say, not always discernible in today’s Senate.

Even that great exemplar of classlessness, the United States, expressed a fear of the ogre of democracy. Alexander Hamilton (a United States Federalist) warned of the need “to restrain the impetuosity and fickleness of the popular [or lower] House and against the effects of gusts of passion or sudden changes of opinion in the people”. And it was a Canadian historian Alpheus Todd, who expressed the need for a “counterpoise to democratic ascendancy” and “a proper forum for sober second thought”. Hence the Canadian Senate was fully appointed by the Governor, no messing about with elections for the loyal Canadians.

The superiority of upper houses is a theme which runs through the entire narrative of such institutions, even though in so many cases the reality has proven that the vision is delusional, not least in the case of Canada where the nominated Senate became, in the words of Professor Stephen Leacock, a “refuge of place hunting politicians and a reward for partisan adherence”.

The very appellation “Upper House” suggests a superior body and the idea lingers. Opposition Senate leader Nick Minchin claimed recently that “The Senate of course, as we all know, is the most prestigious chamber ...” (Canberra Times, October 31, 2009) The false idea of the superiority of the upper house has not died.

The decision to have a bicameral Parliament for Australia was taken before the delegates even met at the Federation Conventions, and was taken as much with the heart as with the head. In 1889, Henry Parkes famously commented that there would be “a Parliament of two Houses, a House of Commons and a Senate”; he did not go on to say why and in the Federation debates the idea that Australia needed an upper house was never questioned.

It is difficult to enter into the minds of the gentlemen (and they were all men) who laboured to draw up the Australian Constitution, but from comments such as those quoted above it seems that many of them were unnerved by the prospect of “untrammelled democracy” as represented by a democratically elected house. An upper house was seen as a necessary protection against the supposed exuberance and follies of the masses. This unhappily pessimistic view, that democratically elected people’s representatives need a restraining influence to prevent national disaster, was widely held and is still fondly held by many today who forget that senators are now elected from the same demographic as the representatives and are as involved in political ideals and beliefs, not to mention party allegiances.


The dearly held belief that the Senate’s role is as a House of Review is pervasive and persuasive, but is not in fact articulated in the Constitution and has never been given official status. It resides permanently in the minds of many observers, undoubtedly stemming from the original oligarchic ascendancy of the upper class in the upper house in original legislatures, especially the British House of Lords. The review function rests on the decree that as both Houses of Parliament have almost equal powers, any legislation must be agreed to by both houses before it can become law, so in effect each house is a house of review to the other.

The perception of superiority emanates from the backgrounds of the delegates to the Conventions, most of whom had served their apprenticeships in colonial (State) Parliaments, many in the upper houses or Councils which, established in the mid-19th century, had been closely modelled on the Lords. Not to establish a Senate would have been unthinkable, against their very nature, and a betrayal of their heritage. Dynamics such as these suggest that the establishment of an upper house was inevitable and that the Senate is the upper house we had to have.

The Australian Senate is frequently described as a hybrid of Washington and Westminster, “Washminster”, in other words, but the influence of the United States on its structure was minimal and limited to the composition of the Senate and its name. The Senate, in fact, was deliberately structured to emulate the then existing British House of Lords as far as possible, to be an august house of review and a bastion against democracy.

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About the Author

Sylvia Marchant is a Canberra writer, historian and reviewer and has published many feature articles and book reviews in Australian newspapers and magazines.

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