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Serious Senate reform should address the wider issues of the Senate's role

By George Williams - posted Tuesday, 14 October 2003

John Howard's proposal to limit the power of the Senate to block legislation serves the interests of the government of the day but not, ultimately, the interests of the Australian people. Our democracy needs a Senate that can review, and if need be block, government bills.

The Senate plays a vital role under both Coalition and Labor in improving the quality of law making and in checking sometimes overhasty governments. Without a Bill of Rights, the Senate is often our last protection against draconian laws.

The Prime Minister's first proposed option is that, after the Senate has twice rejected a bill over three months, a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament could be held to pass the bill.


The larger size of the House of Representatives would normally mean that at a joint sitting a government could overcome its lack of numbers in the Senate.

At present the constitution allows such a joint sitting only after an intervening double dissolution election, at which the lower house and the whole of the Senate go to the polls.

This proposal is flawed in that it undermines the role of the Senate. It does so because there would be far less of an incentive for a government to negotiate with the Senate when it could have its legislation passed at a joint sitting without the need to hold a new election.

Howard also raised a second option that has been attributed originally to the former Labor attorney-general, Michael Lavarch. This would enable a joint sitting of the two houses of Parliament after a normal general election.

This change would enable the Senate to review and block legislation during the life of a parliament and would require a government to gain the support of the people at a new election before a joint sitting could be held.

While the Lavarch proposal is closer to the mark, it ought not to be put to the people. If the Coalition is serious about reforming the Senate, it should not look in isolation at the Senate's power to block legislation. A wider view must be taken to properly balance the role of the Senate against the idea that a government should be able to implement its mandate from the people.


At least four further changes are necessary to bring about appropriate reform of the Senate.

First, elections for the Senate and House of Representatives should be required to be held simultaneously.

There is no justification for separate elections for the two houses - and indeed the enormous cost of doing so means that, in practice, the ballots are usually now held together.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 9 October 2003.

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About the Author

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.

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