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The Senate: Safeguard or Handbrake on Democracy?

By Helen Coonan - posted Saturday, 15 May 1999

The claim by Democrat Leader Senator Meg Lees at their National Convention on 23 January that the Senate is the "legislative powerhouse of the parliament" shows a misunderstanding of the principles of responsible government and the functions of the Senate. It is largely because the Democrats who will again hold the balance of power in the Senate from July 1, are attempting to implement this mistaken concept that the Senate is today dysfunctional.

The Senate is not a law unto itself. It must exercise its co-equal powers within a system of responsible government that recognises the broad parameters of the Government’s right to govern and the public interest in having a stable parliamentary system capable of managing day to day institutional conflict.

Having shifted its emphasis from ‘keeping the bastards honest’, the Democrats, if Senator Lees is to be accepted, are now denying the legitimacy of the Government with a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and seek to usurp the function of Government.


Let there be no mistake. An efficient and hardworking Senate, scrutinising, criticising and examining legislation, and keeping the Government accountable is a great institutional safeguard for all Australians.

But an obstructional competitor in the government of the country, frustrating or at least substantially delaying urgently required responses to national problems, is disabling Australia from realising and enjoying its full potential. The Senate safeguard has in fact become a handbrake on progress.

In fairness, part of the problem lies in the intense brinksmanship that characterises modern political parties. In the Senate it provides an Opposition intent on electoral competition, implacably opposed to a Government’s agenda, that effectively hands the casting vote on important national legislation to the minor parties and independents.

It provides minor parties who command only narrow electoral support with the opportunity to exploit the balance of power to secure changes to government policy that better suit their own policy preferences. Taken to its logical conclusion, it allows the major defeated party in the Senate to hijack the claimed mandate of a minor party to form a minority government in the Senate.

Minority parties and independents are an essential part of a democracy where power is well distributed through the institutions of government. It is a legitimate means of ensuring that diverse views receive a proper hearing and consideration. But it is a profoundly undemocratic outcome when decisions that affect the national interest are effectively concentrated in the hands of a few.

The proportional representation form of voting to elect Senators together with the increase in number of Senators in 1984, from ten to twelve per State (and the resultant reduction in the quota from 16.66 per cent to 14.28 per cent) has ensured that neither of the major parties will have a working majority in the Senate for the forseeable future. An unintended consequence of the increase in numbers has been the major parties winning approximately the same number of Senate seats each, with minor party candidates who make up the "balance" of power relying on preferences to get elected.


There is an overwhelming need for electoral reform that will ensure there is at least the prospect of the government of the day again obtaining a majority in the Senate.

The form of proportional representation used in Australia requires Senators to receive a quota of votes (currently 14.28%) to get elected. Minor party candidates and independents rarely get enough primary votes to fill a quota and have to rely on preferences.

Many Western democracies that use proportional representation require candidates to achieve a specified percentage of a quota of overall primary votes (a threshold) to qualify for election or continuance in a scrutiny process, such as the distribution of preferences.

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This is an edited extract of a speech delivered to the Sydney Institute.

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About the Author

Senator Hon. Helen Coonan is Federal Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer. She is a Senator for NSW.

Other articles by this Author

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Related Links
Full Senate Reform Report (PDF, 347KB)
Helen Coonan's home page
Meg Lees' home page
Photo of Helen Coonan
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