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It's the major parties' fault

By Nick Ferrett - posted Saturday, 15 May 1999

In her article (On Line Opinion May) Senator Coonan claims that reforms by the Chifley and Hawke Governments had allowed minor parties and independents to claim illegitimate power in the Senate. Unfortunately, Senator Coonan’s arguments are fundamentally flawed. Let me explain why.

First, let’s look at the power wielded by the small players in the Senate.

The power of these small players is a function of the rigid discipline and withdrawal from meaningful debate of the major parties. These traits of the major parties mean that the small players become the only actors in the Parliament who lend any serious level of deliberation to the parliamentary process. When you consider that both houses of Parliament were primarily formed for the purposes of being deliberative bodies, this is a major indictment of the major parties, including the Liberal Party, of which I am a member.


Don’t get me wrong. I don’t advocate the total demolition of party discipline. Plainly, a system which requires that the executive be drawn from the parliament and dependent on that parliament’s confidence can only operate where there is a degree of corporate identity. I simply observe that the Liberal Party seems to have grown less tolerant of those who cross the floor and that the Labor Party expels anyone who does. These views are at loggerheads with the belief that a parliamentarian is responsible to his or her constituency before his or her political party. It might even be said that they are anti-constitutional views given that the parliament is meant to be made up of members who individually deliberate on the issues placed before it.

The result of this evacuation from the field of parliamentary deliberation by the major parties is that the minor parties are left with disproportionate power. They don’t achieve disproportionate power because fractions of the population vote for them. They don’t achieve it because they choose – as is their duty – to consider issues and vote according to the wishes or needs of their constituencies. They achieve this disproportionate power because the parliamentary representatives of the major parties behave in a completely predictable manner.

What’s more, the major parties contradict themselves. When the Dawkins budget was frustrated by the smaller players after the 1993 election, the Labor Party howled at the interference. Now they call on the Democrats to defeat the Howard Government’s budget. For years, the Democrats were criticised by the Liberal Party for voting with the Labor Government – they were derided as just another faction of the Labor Party. These days, in a more aggressive stance which has spanned both governments, the Democrats have taken a more activist role and are criticised for that.

I might say that it is not my intention to go in to bat for the Democrats. I think that as a Party, it has shown itself to be a regrettable player in Australian politics which has only dimly defined policy directions and which makes glib promises it knows it will never have to keep as it will never govern. Nonetheless, for better or for worse, people vote for the Democrats. It is not for any other person to question why they do that.

In the end, the smaller players simply don’t have the numbers to frustrate government programs on their own. They just don’t. It’s time that the major parties grew up and realised it.

Senator Coonan also addresses the question of how the Senate should work.


She says that the pursuit of policy objectives by minor parties and independents is beyond the scope of the purpose imagined for the Senate by our founding fathers. She trots out the utterings of a few of those who contributed to the debates in the 1890’s in support of her view, but even they reveal that the possibility for obstruction or disagreement existed. They voted for it anyway.

In any case, does it really matter what the founding fathers wanted? We should learn from their experiences and consider the points of view they put. But why should we take their century old vision as gospel for the way we should be governed now? It seems to me that the nation’s leadership has a responsibility to ask "How do we govern Australia well today?" rather than "What would the founding fathers have had us do?"

Senator Coonan says that it was a great mistake to increase the size of the Senate because this means that smaller mandates are necessary to achieve a spot in the Senate. Doesn’t that just mean that the Senate now has the capacity to represent a diversity of opinion from within the Australian population? Shouldn’t liberal democratic government be about encouraging that sort of representation and thus discouraging the tyranny of the majority?

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Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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