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Is Howard serious about asking Australians to reduce Senate checks?

By Cameron Andrews - posted Wednesday, 2 July 2003

The Prime Minister's proposal to allow Senate deadlocks to be broken without going to an election has led to a predictable range of responses from those silly enough to take the bait.

It doesn't take too much to realise that his plan means the de facto abolition of the Senate, and that it has got absolutely no prospect of getting up at a referendum.

But just the same, there has been no shortage of academics and ego-driven politicians with axes to grind about the Upper House who were eager to give the PM's call enough oxygen to become a "debate".


Former PM Gough Whitlam was an obvious one to be snared by Howard's hook. Understandably bitter at the Senate for having suffocated his government in 1975, Whitlam gladly chimed in with words of support.

Labor luminary, NSW Premier, Bob Carr, also happily crossed party lines to climb into Howard's tent. Frustrated at the intransigence of his own Upper House, Carr urged the proposal be accorded the "highest priority".

The Prime Minister knows his proposal is going nowhere. After having successfully killed off the republic, he doesn't need a constitutional law expert to tell him how hard it is to get constitutional change through a referendum.

So why does he bother? Surely, there must be something more to it than just giving the detested "chattering classes" yet more to chatter about.

Superficially it seems that John Howard has never had much of a third-term agenda. He won the last election by promising to keep us safe from terrorists and refugees in leaky boats, not by campaigning with some great vision for the future.

But he does have a vision and he does have an agenda. The problem is that most of it is stuck high and dry on the Parliamentary notice paper. Stripping back payments to disability pensioners, the further sale of Telstra, gutting Medicare, tightening the screws on students - it's all part of an almighty legislative logjam that no amount of horse trading and cajoling has been able to clear.


John Howard may well have been elected on three separate occasions, but for all the talk of mandates he has failed to win control of both Houses. Australian voters like building checks and balances into the system and the Howard government is not the first to have the brake applied.

Governments faced with hostile Senates have no other option but to return to the voters and campaign for the necessary numbers to get its proposals through.

And that is exactly what the Prime Minister is doing.

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About the Author

Cameron Andrews, a former state president of the Democrats, is an adviser to the independent state MP David Barr and Chair of the Reid Group.

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