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Is there a problem with the Senate?

By Chris Lewis - posted Wednesday, 22 April 2009

As noted by Ross Peake in the Canberra Times (March 20, 2009), Steve Fielding’s lone vote, which ended Labor’s attempt to adopt a alcopops tax, either makes him “a fraud according to the Government and the Greens or [as] a hero, according to the alcohol industry”.

But what about concern that Fielding alone obstructed a key piece of legislation given that he won just 1.8 per cent of the primary vote in the 2004 Senate election and was only elected through preference deals with the Liberals, Labor and the Democrats.

The reality is that no single member or minor party ever decides federal legislation. Rather, legislation is legitimately supported or defeated by a majority of Senators. After all, as of July 2008, the Coalition had 37 Senators and Labor 32, with the remaining seven seats held by the Australian Greens, one Family First representative (Fielding), and one independent (Nick Xenophon).


As for Labor’s Daryl Melham whinging about the power of one, it is worth noting that Labor won 41 of its 83 House of Representatives seats after preferences (nearly 50 per cent of won seats), including seven seats when its primary vote was less than the opposing Liberal Party candidate. The Coalition also won 28 of its 65 seats with preferences.

In other words, a small proportion of voters, ranging from 1 to 13 per cent, helped Labor get over the line in 41 electorates. Fifteen of Labor’s seats required five or more cent of voters giving their preferences ahead of the Coalition on first round of preference distribution alone. Hence, given that these same voters preferred representation from minor parties or independents ahead of Labor, this provides evidence that minority views must have a voice.

There is no perfect political system. Most European democracies, like Australia’s Senate, also have proportional voting with its different models, which also gives minor parties greater power than warranted by their vote when there is a struggle for majority consensus on a particular issue.

Other hybrid national voting systems are also hardly better than the Australian system. Take Britain which, besides still appointing members of the House of Lords, has a House of Commons where members are elected by a first past the post voting system. In 1997, the Labour Party won 63.6 per cent of seats with just 43.2 per cent of the vote while the Tory Party and Liberal Democrats won just 32.1 per cent of the seats with 43 per cent of the vote. And in 2005, George Galloway was elected after winning just 18.4 per cent of the vote with just three elected MPs getting more than 40 per cent support.

The Australian parliament, with its blend of characteristics associated with different political systems, offers a successful national example that has worked well since the time of federation, notwithstanding events in 1975 when the Coalition refused to support supply bills unless the Labor government called an election after a series of scandals.

On the one hand, Australia’s political system allows the elected government (formed by the party or coalition of parties that wins a majority of seats in the House of Representatives) to implement its policy mix proposed at the previous election, or at least most of it.


But because party discipline in Australian politics is extremely tight with divisions nearly always decided on party lines, the role of minor parties and independents in the Senate is the major parliamentary check and balance to counter absolute power by a government.

To resolve the potential problem of the Senate rejecting important legislation, a government can call an election through the simultaneous dissolution of both Houses under section 57 of the Australian Constitution, although a bill must be rejected a second time after a minimum 3 month period from the time of the initial rejection.

A diminished Senate would hardly enhance Australia’s democracy, even given times when a few Senators hold sway. After all, despite minor parties and independents holding seven Senate seats from July 2008, about 15 per cent of Australian voters did given their primary votes in the House of Representatives in 2007 to candidates outside Labor or the Coalition: 7.79 per cent for the Australian Greens, 1.99 per cent for Family First, and 2.23 pr cent for two independents.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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