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Bleak House: the Senate and the committee system

By Lyn Allison - posted Thursday, 20 July 2006

The prime minister said he wouldn’t abuse his new found senate majority.

In the past six months the government has throttled the Federal Senate. It has rammed through the IR laws, the anti-terror laws, Welfare to Work laws, created laws to shut out refugees and ban voluntary student unions, to name a few.

Once upon a time liberals stood for freedom and liberty. Now they stand for making more laws.


And there is no one who can stop them.

With a senate majority of one, and a still largely compliant small “l” Liberal backbench the Cabinet, the executive of government, has now turned its attention to emasculating the senate committee system. They want the committees to be cut from 16 to 10, all chaired and dominated by government senators.

Many people may not have heard of the senate committees but they’re made up of senators from all political parties who act as investigators. The committees that found out about the children overboard lies, bullying in the defence force, abuse of children in institutions and the state of mental health in Australia, for instance, were not chaired by government senators.

The committees are a vital communication link between the senate and the people. However, the majority of Australians probably don’t give a “flying fig” about what happens in Federal Parliament. Living in Howard’s “relaxed and comfortable” Australia means working harder and longer hours to pay off the mortgage and the credit card while having less security in the workplace.

The media make plenty of claims on our attention. So why should we care about the senate committee system?

The committee system allows people to put forward different views on euthanasia, science and technology, poverty, productivity, the arts, Indigenous health, uranium mining - in fact, there are very few major areas of Australian society that have not, at one time or other, been investigated or reviewed by a senate committee.


Why? Because governments make mistakes and they ignore problems they’d rather not face. They can sometimes ride roughshod over people. And if they are not obliged to persuade parliamentarians from other parties to support their Bills - as has been the case for the past 30 years - arrogance and hubris reign. Wiser and older heads from generations now long gone knew this, and that’s why they created the senate committee system.

The committee system in Australian parliamentary democracy has a proud history but it really comes into its own when you have a strong centralised government, such as the Coalition, which micro-manages every political crisis and every piece of legislation.

On the one hand the PM says to the Australian people that he presides over the most open government in Australia, yet his Cabinet is ruled by an iron fist. You’ll get a small “l” Liberal moaning, quite reasonably about how unjust it all is but then vote with the government when the time comes.

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About the Author

Lyn Allison is a patron of the Peace Organisation of Australia and was leader of the Australian Democrats from 2004 to 2008.

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