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Losing our democratic checks and balances through habit and apathy

By Klaas Woldring - posted Wednesday, 15 November 2006

At a recent well-attended Politics in the Pub session, in Sydney, three speakers devoted their talks to the Senate, the theme for the evening. Two represented new web campaigners for new policy (New Matilda and Get Up) and the third speaker represented the newly formed Third Voice Alliance. Public interest could be measured by the many in the audience who asked further questions and made comments.

Post 2004 federal election analysis suggests that a majority of voters resent the fact the control of the Senate has moved unexpectedly to the Howard Government. If voters want to restore the balance of power that was previously exercised by minority parties they will need to “decouple” their House of Representatives vote from their Senate vote.

Going back over the last six federal elections only about 3 per cent of major party voters do this. Habit, apathy and the major parties How-to-Vote advice appear to be the major reasons.


A public education campaign pointing out the benefit of exercising voters’ options should be undertaken by the organisations concerned, the minor parties themselves and by the many voters who are disenchanted by the major parties. Merely tight preferencing between minor parties is not an adequate strategy to democratise the Senate.

It is virtually impossible to elect minor party candidates to the House of Representatives. The electoral system is grossly biased in favour of the major parties in that house. However, it is entirely possible to elect a Senate with a much larger segment of reformist minor party and independent senator representation.

Major party Senate candidates are actually appointed by their party rather than elected by the voters. Major parties can count on two to three quotas in each state (in a half senate election) as a result of the habitual vote for that party and standard party advice. The Senate election outcome will therefore be decided largely by that coupled vote.

However, this nexus can be broken provided voters realise that it is not necessarily in the country’s or their interest to accept that major party’s advice. As a result of proportional representation, the electoral system for the Senate since 1949, they have a range of additional options for the Senate. If half the voters were to break that claimed nexus then the Senate could suddenly emerge as a chamber reflecting the democratic power of the people.

Whichever major party would win the election the views of the Senate would shape government policy significantly. It could even become the more influential legislative chamber and be a catalyst for major reforms not achievable otherwise.

After all, the Australian constitution bestows real power on the Senate, in Section 53:


“Except as provided in this section, the Senate shall have equal power with the House of Representatives in respect of all proposed laws”, the qualification being that “the Senate may not amend any proposed law so as to increase any proposed charge or burden to the people”.

A list of achievable reforms through a Senate controlled by progressive minor parties and independents, conceivably saving massive amounts of money, could include the following:

  • stronger controls over government advertising, foreign investment, foreign treaties and trade agreements;
  • regulating imports of agricultural products;
  • initiating referendums on constitutional change, for example, fixed four-year parliaments;
  • introduce rules on political donations and public funding of elections;
  • change the electoral system itself;
  • launch a review of security legislation;
  • introduce a human rights bill;
  • sign the Kyoto Treaty;
  • curb the excessive remuneration of senior executives;
  • ensure a fair IR system;
  • bring on the republic;
  • start the debate on a restructure of Australia, and so on.
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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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