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Making the Senate work efficiently is an imperative for the 21st century

By Helen Coonan - posted Friday, 7 November 2003

An efficient and hard-working Senate, scrutinising, criticising and examining legislation and keeping the government accountable, is a great institutional safeguard for all Australians.

But when the Senate crosses the line and acts as an obstructional competitor to the democratically elected government of the day, frustrating or substantially delaying urgently required responses to national problems or insisting on its own policy, it is no longer a House of Review but a House of Obstruction.

Critics of Senate reform will point to the fact that most legislation gets through in the end. This obscures the importance of bills that are obstructed or delayed.


The reforms that have been implemented have only been achieved with the support of minor parties or independents.

Minority parties and independents are an essential part of a democracy where power is well distributed throughout the institutions of government.

Where it becomes untenable however, is when no compromise can be reached, other than complete capitulation by the government.

It is not in Australia's interests to have what we have now, two competing governments with almost equal and opposite mandates to govern.

These problems were recognised at Federation.

What Federation required in achieving a union between the existing colonial states (the Original States) was a geographical distribution of votes in the Senate as a balance to the greater numerical representation in the House of Representatives of the most populous states.


Whatever the founders may have intended, it is clear that the Senate does not function as a states' House.

Any expectation that Senators would vote in a block according to the state they represent is unsupportable, not the least because of the emergence of rigid party discipline which presently controls all but four independent Senators and also because in a Federal democracy the Senate does not represent states' rights but rather represents electors voting by their states.

There is no escaping the theoretical difficulties in reconciling federalism and responsible cabinet government in the institutional design.

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Article edited by Rick Brown.
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This article is based on a speech delivered to The Brisbane Institute on 21 October 2003.

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About the Author

Senator Hon. Helen Coonan is Federal Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer. She is a Senator for NSW.

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