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Separation of powers? Is that a trick question?

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Eighteen years ago, former Queensland Premier Russell Cooper was asked by a journalist for his understanding of the doctrine of the separation of powers.

His infamous reply, “Is this some sort of trick question?”

But if today, a journalist was to ask Prime Minister Howard for his view on this basic doctrine of modern democracy he may not do much better than Mr Cooper.


The doctrine of the separation of powers - that there is a clear division between the government (the executive), the parliament and the judiciary so that power cannot reside in one at the expense of the others - is looking very sick and sorry in Australia today.

Mr Howard’s Government announced last week that it - the executive - intends to take complete control of the parliament through the process of ensuring that government members chair senate committees.

Make no mistake. This is as direct a threat to the separation of powers doctrine that we have seen in Australia in recent years. The senate and its committees are the only check on laws and policies proposed by the government because in Australia, unlike for example the UK, the US and Canada, the lower house (the House of Representatives) is simply a rubber stamp for the government.

Mr Howard’s assault on the doctrine of the separation of powers is ironic given he, and the arch defender of the move to bring senate committees under government control Finance Minister Nick Minchin, proudly proclaim that they are genuine political conservatives.

If this is the case then they have a funny way of showing it. Conservative political philosophy, shaped in part from the great Anglo-Irish parliamentarian and writer Edmund Burke, distrusts the centralisation of power. It sees virtue in power being dispersed through the three arms of government so that it has to be exercised with restraint, particularly by governments which have a habit of always wanting to get their own way.

The move by the Howard Government to neutralise the power of senate committees, and thus scrutiny by the parliament of the actions of the government, reflects an arrogance that is undemocratic.


The Howard Government is assuming that it has a monopoly on policy wisdom and the direction for the country, and therefore there is no need for serious scrutiny of its plans. That Australian democracy is these days, roughly evenly divided between those who support the policies of the Howard Government and those who do not.

The beauty of the separation of powers doctrine is that it enables that half of the Australian community who do not agree with the government, to have their voice heard through the parliament. And the doctrine is particularly concerned to curtail the possibility of the tyranny of the majority. What will happen to minority interests now that the senate can no longer effectively provide them with a voice through the deliberations of its committees?

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Mr Howard has moved to weaken further the separation of powers doctrine with his plans for the senate. This Prime Minister, and his Government, has been neutralising the third branch of government, the court system, for a decade.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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