Current events and concerns about the decline in executive government accountability have generated renewed interest in the role and status of upper houses and the importance of bicameralism in Australia and internationally.
In Australia, the federal Coalition government’s historic majority in the Senate secured at the 2004 election has renewed interest in its important review functions.
In Victoria, the Legislative Council has recently undergone major democratic reform with some unexpected results in the most recent election. While the South Australian Rann Labor Government intends holding a referendum to abolish the upper house at the next election, by contrast in Queensland, the only Australian state without an upper house, the idea of restoring an upper house has gained attention as a means of improving executive government accountability.
Internationally, so too have recent events drawn attention to the role of upper houses and the revitalisation of long-standing bicameral systems. In the United States relations between the President and both chambers of the American legislature are again in focus following Democratic control of Congress.
In Canada, the new Conservative federal government has announced a review of the parliamentary system and transforming the Senate into an elected body.
The German Bundesrat is also being placed under scrutiny in relation to its composition, powers and roles.
In the United Kingdom, reforms initiated by the Blair Government have significantly strengthened the House of Lords and further changes are under discussion.
This renewed interest in the roles and powers of upper houses throughout the western world reflects growing concerns about the decline of democratic accountability, the emergence of new interest groups, declining political party membership and too frequent examples of executive governments avoiding parliamentary scrutiny, miscellaneous review mechanisms (such as auditors-general) and conventions of consultation in policy development.
Indeed, it is widely asserted that Westminster democracies have generally fallen into a state of what Lord Hailsham famously called “elective dictatorship” in which the sovereignty of Parliament has gradually become the sovereignty of the lower house, and the sovereignty of the lower house has become the sovereignty of the government of the day.
Clearly, the prospect of concentrated executive and legislative power is a problem that all parliamentary systems must address, unicameral and otherwise.
The issue in terms of democratic accountability is whether the existence of a second chamber reduces the potential for governments to have complete control over the legislature and to limit trends that are consolidating more and more power in the hands of the few.
It is against this general background, as well as a number of public scandals at a local level, that Queensland’s unicameral parliamentary system in particular has been placed under increasing scrutiny.
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