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An upper house for Queensland?

By Nicholas Aroney - posted Tuesday, 11 April 2006

The science of democratic government is, perhaps, still in its infancy but there are some lessons to be learnt from history. As we all know, Queensland is the only Australian state that does not have an upper house. The legislative council was abolished in 1922 in dubious circumstances following a referendum in which Queensland electors voted against abolition. A legislative council, packed with nominees of the government, nonetheless voted itself out of existence.

The abolition of a nominated, and therefore undemocratic, legislative chamber may have been a step in the right direction, but since then, Queensland governments of all political persuasions have been able to dominate a unicameral parliament over which they have virtually complete control.

In recent years, the upper houses of the other Australian states have undergone a number of reforms, in some cases, substantial reforms. All of them are popularly elected, mostly on a system of proportional representation which ensures that the political complexion of the legislative council is significantly different to that of the legislative assembly.


Although the Fitzgerald Inquiry in Queensland led to a number of significant reforms of the political system, including the electoral system and an attempt to invigorate the committee system, the composition and functioning of the Queensland Parliament has not been subjected to the same degree or kind of scrutiny and debate as has occurred in connection with other state parliaments.

Perhaps the problems that we have come to associate with the Queensland Government are not altogether unique among Australian governments - a politicised public service, a breakdown in ministerial accountability, a failure to provide efficient basic services, a largely ineffective committee system, avoidance of FOI (freedom of information) by tabling documents in cabinet and appealing to commercial-in-confidence clauses, centralisation of power and control in the premier's office - the list goes on.

But a dispassionate comparison of the condition of Queensland politics with that of the other Australian states at least suggests that Queensland governments have for a very long time been free of the kind of scrutiny and criticism that only an independent house of parliament can provide.

At the 2004 Queensland state election, with just 47 per cent of the primary vote, the ALP secured 63 of the legislative assembly's 89 seats and a rare third term in office - and this not because of malapportionment or gerrymander but simply the result of an electoral system based on single-member constituencies. What is more, the Liberal Party obtained 18.5 per cent of the primary vote, but secured only five seats; the Greens obtained 6.76 per cent of the vote, but no seats; and One Nation obtained 4.88 per cent and yet secured a seat.

As Paul Williams said in 2004, despite the Fitzgerald Reforms, Queensland seems to have returned to the old pattern of a political culture in which one side of politics completely dominates the other for long periods of time.

We are of course used to statistics such as these within Westminster parliamentary systems, but the existence of upper houses in the other Australian states modifies the tendency of single-member constituencies to polarise the political landscape and systematically over-represent the major political parties. In this context, we should perhaps consider again the words of John Stuart Mill, who observed in 1861:


A majority in a single assembly, when it has assumed a permanent character - when composed of the same persons habitually acting together, and always assured of victory in their own House - easily becomes despotic and overweening, if released from the necessity of considering whether its acts will be concurred in by another constituted authority.

An objection that is sometimes raised against second chambers concerns their capacity to be obstructionist, that is, to oppose the policies of a government that has the support of a majority of voters. However, this objection presupposes that the electoral system is a reliable indicator of the democratic will of the people.

Queensland, like most modern liberal democracies, is an increasingly diverse place. An electoral system in which the contest for effective political power is divided between two partisan groups, with a “winner takes all” outcome, is less representative than it could or should be. Compulsory voting, whatever its merits, enables incumbent political parties to make exaggerated claims to “popular” mandates from the electorate.

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First published in the Brisbane Line on the Brisbane Institute's website on March 29, 2006. Nicholas Aroney is co-convening a conference entitled Improving Government Accountability in Queensland: The Upper House Solution? which will be held on April 21, 2006 at Customs House, Brisbane. Further information is available at:

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About the Author

Nicholas Aroney is a Fellow of the Centre for Public, International and Comparative Law and Reader in Law at the TC Beirne School of Law, the University of Queensland. He is author of The Constitution of a Federal Commonwealth: The Making and Meaning of the Australian Constitution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Freedom of Speech in the Constitution (Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, 1998).

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