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It's not just Italy that needs parliamentary reform

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Friday, 16 December 2016

Australians did not give a lot of attention to Italian PM Matteo Renzi's attempt to change Italy's cumbersome political system.  Renzi (head of the centre-left Democratic Party) wanted to strengthen central government and weaken the Senate, the upper house of Italy's Parliament. 

The aim was for Italy to have more stable governments and for Parliament to more easily pass its legislation.  The referendum package also included a law aimed at giving the party, that won the most votes in elections for the Chamber of Deputies, a great many additional seats.  This was designed to put an end to the era of unstable governments, while reducing the powers of the Senate to prevent it from blocking legislation passed by the Lower House.

Italy is in dire need of decisive government.  It has a long history of unstable and short-lived coalition governments.  Its economy has contracted 12 per cent since the financial crisis began in 2008.  The country's debt-to-GDP ratio has reached 133 per cent, and is second only to Greece's, while a number of its major banks are under stress and at risk of failure.  The country also faces a major challenge from uncontrolled immigration, particularly across the Mediterranean from Africa.


Despite a broadly recognised need for change, the constitutional referendum was rejected (with 59 per cent voting against the proposal).  The predictable reasons for opposition included that too much power would have been ceded to the executive, the formula was not quite right, and that "checks and balances" were needed.  Previously (in 2006) voters had also voted down proposals from the earlier Berlusconi government for constitutional reform.

Australia is currently facing much the same problem as Italy, namely that our Senate is blocking key parts of the legislative programme of the Government.  Our situation is not nearly as chronic as that of Italy but is serious nevertheless. 

Almost every independent economic commentator of note is saying that our Commonwealth Budget deficit and mounting debt will lead to a future crisis unless dealt with.  (Australia's combined federal and state debt currently stands at about 39 per cent of GDP compared to a low of under 10 per cent in 2007, with a lot of the increased public spending having been squandered.)  Despite this, Commonwealth Budget savings measures have for several years been blocked by the Australian Senate, and other key government legislation also gets either blocked or drastically amended so that it fulfils little of its original purpose.

The problem in essence is one of elected governments being unable to govern effectively.  Like Italy we have two houses of parliament with almost equal powers, that are elected using different formulas, that more often than not result in the Government not having control of the Senate.  What both Australia and Italy have is a recipe for political stalemate.

It is notable that the Australian political system was not always like this.

Before 1948, there was a block-voting regime for Senate elections, which tended to result in landslide Senate majorities for an incoming government.  According to the parliamentary website, Labor won all of the 18 seats on offer at the 1910 election.  Non-Labor won all seats on offer at the 1918 and 1925 and 1934 elections, and Labor won all Senate seats at the 1943 election, and 15 of the 18 on offer at the 1946 election. This largely prevented a blocking role so the government of the day could govern effectively. 


It is widely accepted that in 1948 the Chifley Labor Government adopted the Hare-Clark voting system for Senate elections and enlarged the Senate, for reasons that were largely self-serving.  Labor expected to lose to Menzies at the following election, and (having an existing Senate majority of 33 to 3) it changed the voting system to advantage itself (as the party expecting to go into opposition).  [There was admittedly a case for moving away from a system that regularly produced obscene majorities but this was not the real reason for the change.]  The changed voting system was mainly intended to stymie the incoming Menzies' Government in 1949 by bringing about a hostile Senate.  Labor subsequently ended up controlling the Senate with 34 seats to the Government's 26.

The situation whereby the elected government rarely has control of the Senate has persisted.  Arguably the situation has been made even more unstable by the introduction of "above the line" voting whereby the major parties can direct their preferences for final senate seats to minor parties (if they themselves are out of contention) to avoid giving the seat to their opponents.

The Australian Constitution facilitated the now common stalemate between the Senate and the House of Representatives by allowing manipulation of the voting system.  The Constitution states that "the Parliament of the Commonwealth may make laws prescribing the method of choosing senators, but so that the method shall be uniform for all the States".

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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