A Senate Majority Was Meant to Be Easy

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It’s become one of the truly great moments in Australian politics. It was the 28 October 2004. Inside a bland Australian Electoral Commission office in Brisbane, big Ron Boswell with a smile as wide as Cubbie Station, hair askew, his ample frame spilling out of his suit was huffing and puffing on his mobile phone to the Prime Minister.

‘Prime Minister, you just have control of the Senate. Congratulations. Yeah, well, when everyone thinks we’re out, we’re the Comeback Kids. You happy? Well, I bet you were relieved. You’ve got an open s ‘

And there he stopped checking himself against some early-onset hubris. Was it ‘slather’ he was about to say?

‘No, I said open sesame. I didn’t say open slather, I said open sesame.’

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And of course the rest is history. John Howard now had the opportunity to implement the really big ideas of his political career. His long-cherished Industrial Relations reforms were at the top of the list. Behind that, came the full sale of Telstra. But it dropped off pretty quickly after that.

The Government’s majority ensured that they got their 2005 tax cuts through, and there have been a few other minor Bills that the Opposition might have frustrated had they had the chance. But it was the move against the Senate Committee system in the final sitting period before the winter break that’s really caused the most uproar. Here was proof of what Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, had warned back in October 2004, would be the almost undemocratic, consequences of this historic moment in Australian democracy.

In an interview on ABC TV’s 7:30 Report, Evans had argued:

if the mandate theory is correct, then the Government has a mandate to do what it wants after an election, what do we keep either House of Parliament for? We have one rubber stamp already. If we are to have two rubber stamps, do we need either of them?

He went on to predict the move to suppress Committee inquires that might prove to be embarrassing or inconvenient to the Government. ‘After all that’s what governments do nowadays.’

The thing is, anyone who was around during the 1980s and the early 1990s would remember how, for most of the Hawke/Keating years, Ministers would routinely gag their bureaucrats in Committee hearings and prevent them answering difficult or embarrassing questions. Gareth Evans was particularly good at it.

In 1994, the system was changed after much multi-Party discussion. It certainly wasn’t a change the Government of the day welcomed with open arms but the numbers in the Upper House at the time forced them to reach a consensus that better reflected the political dynamic of the times. And that’s the argument that Nick Minchin, Minister of Finance and Leader of the Government in the Senate, makes now for the changes that will see the number of inquires reduced from 16 to 10 and ensure that in the future all the Committees will be chaired by Coalition Senators.

However hard he might try and argue otherwise, the move is clearly designed to nobble the power and impact of the Committee system. But should we be surprised? And would a Labor Government in the same position do any different? No. The numbers will turn again and, no doubt, Labor will tip things the other way whenever they do. In fact, Senator Robert Ray made that more than clear.

‘Whatever they do to us now we’ll do back to them. And if they think that’s a threat well, it is.’ He said.

The outrage over the Senate Committee process will continue, of course, even though the real political heat often comes through the questioning in the quite separate Senate Estimates hearings. This is the forum that ALP Senators Ray and John Faulkner have made such mileage out of over the years. They will continue to do so, unless the Government gets an even more severe attack of hubris.

Thanks to Alan Moir.

But the past few weeks have thrown into relief what is a much more interesting consequence of the Government’s Senate majority and one that will inevitably become even more important as we edge closer to the 2007 Federal election. National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce’s threats aside, the numbers may have given John Howard control of the Senate but it has also opened up a number of serious and hitherto unseen cracks and fissures within the Coalition Party room. The fight over the proposed migration amendments is the most significant so far but it won’t be the last.

Another of those prescient moments in 2004 came from the departing Senator Meg Lees. She correctly predicted the instability we’re seeing now. During her time as both a Democrat and an Independent, she said her office had been a very busy place. She had been wooed relentlessly by Ministers and backbenchers alike. The GST was a good example of that, but there were many other occasions when backbenchers would try to change details in Government Bills by trying to sway Independents. Now, those same backbenchers have no avenue for change other than their own Party room.

In the past few months we’ve seen backbench revolts on a number of issues. The outcry over the Snowy Hydro privatisation even forced a rare backflip on core Government policy. Since then, there’s been the immigration issue, a revolt from some over the continued ban on stem-cell research and opposition to legislation exempting contractors from industrial relations laws.

The revolt over the Government’s move to overturn the ACT’s gay rights civil union act even saw a Liberal Senator cross the floor for the first time in the 10 years of the Howard Government. []

This has inevitably led many to question the tuning of the Prime Minister’s once-legendary political antenna. Has he lost his touch? Some certainly think he has and this is inevitably feeding the continuing speculation about his leadership.

We are at the point now where every step, every policy position, every furrow of the Prime Ministerial brow is interpreted through the leadership prism. Until he makes a public announcement about his leadership intentions, that’s how it will be and it will only get more intense and ridiculous as the weeks and months go by.

Surely he’ll have to let us and his party know soon.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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