16 Sep 2004

What happens if the Coalition controls the Senate?

By New Matilda
Forget 'rodents' and 'worms'. Turn your attention to 'unrepresentative swill.'

Pundits have been predicting the Coalition will win 20 seats in the Senate, bringing it within cooee of control, with 38 out of 76 seats.

The reason is that the terms are almost over of Senators elected in 1998, when the Coalition Senate vote was at rock bottom at 37.7 per cent. They will be replaced off a much higher vote for the Coalition. Surprisingly little attention is being given to this scenario.

What would a Coalition-dominated Senate mean? For a start that the Coalition could pass all the electoral legislation amendments it has been putting up that would fiddle the rules of the game in its favour. Closing the rolls when the writs are issued, for example (reducing young voters) and raising the threshold for non-disclosure of party donations.

We might even get Senator Minchin having another go at abolishing compulsory voting one of the strong points of Australian democracy, when other countries have voters who are less and less representative of the population.

But government control of the Senate would mean much more than fiddling the electoral system to try to stay in forever. We haven't had government control of the Senate for more than 20 years. Moreover, with a few honourable exceptions like Senator Marise Payne, current Coalition Senators are loyal to the party above the parliament. They would not break ranks to defend the independence of the Senate from the government.

Since the Senators elected in 1980 took their seats, minor parties and independents have controlled the balance of power. This is the ideal situation, with neither government nor opposition in control. Where the opposition controls the Senate, it can be simply obstructive. During the three years of the Whitlam government, the Coalition rejected 93 government bills including, repeatedly, the legislation to establish Medibank.

Because minor parties will never form government, they have a vested interest in strengthening the power of parliament. As 'the alternative government', the opposition is much more cautious for example in their attitude to requiring accountability of ministerial advisers.

Most of the parliamentary reform of the last 20 years has been initiated by the minor parties. For example, the Australian Democrats and the Greens were responsible for the deadline and the double deadline, respectively, for the introduction of bills. These cut-off points are to prevent governments saving up their legislation until the end of sittings and then trying to rush it through without scrutiny.

Indpendent Senator Brian Harradine (retiring next year) was responsible for the permanent Senate order requiring government departments to produced indexed lists of their files every six months. These indexed lists now have to be placed on departmental websites and greatly assist transparency in government and FOI requests.

The minor parties, particularly the Australian Democrats, have worked hard to achieve the current system of Senate reference committees chaired by non-government Senators. The Senate can refer awkward issues to committees against the wishes of the government. Senate committees have become the glory of the federal parliament, the place where cover-ups are pursued and faulty legislative proposals are taken apart.

Senate committees are also a place where the community gets a chance to participate in the legislative process, at hearings all over the country. Evidence or submissions from members of the public are now protected by parliamentary privilege just like parliamentary debate.

The Australian Election Study of 2001 showed that more than a third of voters thought it was important to vote for minor parties in the Senate and only about a quarter disagreed.

We are not seeing polls showing voting intentions for the Senate. If voters deliver a Coalition-controlled Senate as well as House of Representatives, there will be no brake on government.

We'll then be in for some nasty surprises.

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