It was well worth venturing out last week to hear the first ever Alfred Deakin Lecture double header, with back-to-back lectures by Tony Smith, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Scott Ryan, the President of the Senate. (I can’t find the first online anywhere, but the second is here. Laura Tingle also reported on it yesterday.)
Given the sort of display their party had put on the previous week in Canberra, both men would have been justified in lying low for a while. Instead they both gave thoughtful presentations on some of the problems of parliamentary government – Smith with a more historical perspective, comparing Deakin’s times with our own, and Ryan with a somewhat more philosophical approach.
Both, inevitably, talked about the Senate: Australia’s upper house is indeed a distinctive institution. In Ryan’s words, “The constitutional strength of our Senate is a defining feature of our democracy.” But it has also for most of its history been a political punching-bag for one side or the other, and the last few years are no exception. Many have laid the blame for the chaotic nature of recent politics at the door of the Senate.
Since the Coalition returned to power in 2013, its complaints in that direction have been insistent. A surprising number of Coalition MPs and supporters seem to think that they would be in a far better position if the Senate had been more willing to pass their legislation.
Smith and Ryan both paid lip service to this idea, but neither produced any evidence for it. I confess I find it implausible. No doubt the Senate has often been frustrating for the government, but it’s hard to see where it has done actual harm.
The Abbott government’s first budget, for example, was fearsomely unpopular: would it really have been better off politically if it had passed the Senate unscathed? More likely the Senate did it a favor by rejecting some of the measures. And while Malcolm Turnbull more recently might have worried about getting an energy policy through the Senate, his real problem, as events showed, was devising one that could get through his own party room.
It’s also probably not coincidental that in the last period of Coalition government, under John Howard, the wheels really fell off precisely at the time when it had a Senate majority. There was no longer any barrier to it passing cherished but unpopular legislation, which it duly did – WorkChoices being the salient example.
Ryan told us, however, that “as long as the Senate is a forum or a stage for the expression of demands that make compromise more difficult, our legislative process will not function as it needs to.” He admitted that the public showed no sign of sharing the executive’s frustration, but nonetheless argued that “Governments need to be able to legislate the agenda they take to elections.”
What he proposed was a version of what is known in Britain as the Salisbury doctrine: that the upper house will not reject legislation that embodies policies on which the government was elected.
Since, as Ryan acknowledged, the British House of Lords is constitutionally a very different beast, having no democratic mandate, it is hard to see why our very democratic Senate should want to fetter itself in the same way. But it is also hard to see what practical difference it would make.
Much better, in my view, to take up Ryan’s suggestions about rediscovering the value of compromise and negotiation. It was an implicit rebuke to his colleagues, but no less true for that, to say that “the parliamentary process that sees broad support for an initiative is not a sign of compromise going too far, but can develop a national consensus.”
Smith, with less professional interest in the Senate’s powers, was more radical. He suggested changing the basis on which senators are elected, by dividing each state into six districts, each of which would elect a single senator at each half-Senate election. Andrew Robb floated the same idea back in 2005.
To evaluate it, we need to think why it is that the Senate should so often take on a different political complexion from the House of Representatives. There are four reasons why the two may differ:
- Some people vote differently for the two houses (generally minor parties attract more votes for the Senate)
- Senators serve six-year terms, with elections being staggered, rather than the three-year maximum of the lower house
- Each state has equal representation in the Senate, whereas seats in the House of Representatives are allocated by population
- The Senate is elected by proportional representation instead of the single-member districts used in the House
No government can do much about the first point, and the next two are both set by the constitution. The fourth is the only one that parliament can change by ordinary legislation, so that is where Smith set his sights.
But point four is also the one that unequivocally contributes to making the Senate more democratic than the lower house. Single-member districts deliver lopsided majorities, favor sectional interests, discriminate against broadly-based minor parties and produce random unfairnesses. Proportional representation avoids all these problems.
It’s true that conflict between the houses is accentuated when the house of review has as much – or more – claim to a democratic mandate as the so-called “people’s house”. But surely the solution to that is not to cut back on democracy, but to expand it.
That’s just what Peter Brent suggested a couple of years ago when he looked at the Senate:
But keeping minority voices out of parliament would, in the context of declining major party support, contribute further to widespread alienation from the political process. …
Proportional representation in the lower house could, by delivering responsibility to crossbench members in both chambers, rectify our rolling parliamentary logjam.
With a genuinely democratic House of Representatives, along the lines of New Zealand, Sweden or the Netherlands, Smith’s plan for the Senate would make complete sense. Without it, it would just make our system even further removed from what the voters ask for.