Some years ago the BBC produced a brilliant documentary series about the House of Lords which chronicled the strange existence of those hereditary peers who by dint of their birth had wound up being underemployed for life in this absurd parliamentary chamber.

The Senate: valuable house of review or expensive chamber of horrors?

There was one chap aged only in his 30s who was not only completely loaded, he was also completely smashed, living in the rundown country estate his late father had left to him where the only functioning room appeared to be the cellar. Every morning he would wake up, put on his tweed trousers and a silly cravat, and start working his way through bottle after bottle of 1950s French burgundy. His face was dotted with burst capillaries and he sat in his comfy chair like that Uncle Monty from Withnail and I, rabbitting about how one felt a sense of duty in maintaining one’s family traditions by serving as a Lord.

It now seems that even the Brits have realised their Upper House is an elitist anachronism and a waste of money.

They are considering plans to effectively scrap the House of Lords, by eliminating the current system where the 740-odd members are appointed only by the Queen, or on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, or a government appointments committee which is more than open to doing favours for mates. In its place they will introduce an Upper House comprising MPs elected directly by the people.

But if the Poms are looking to Australia for their inspiration, they would be well advised to look beyond the theoretical and constitutional underpinnings of the Australian Senate, and the five State Upper Houses (Queensland alone is a one-chamber Parliament). They should look at how these places actually work in practice. While they are nowhere near as unrepresentative as the House of Lords, there is plenty of evidence that our Senate generally fails to serve its two functions – as a house of review and as a so-called state’s house.

The main reason for this, obviously, is party politics. Senators will generally put the interests of their home states to one side to toe the party line. Only a few senators, generally independents, are prepared to pursue the interests of their state with disregard for the party position. Tasmanian Independent Senator Brian Harradine was one, and even then, it took an accident of the numbers for him to be able to exert any clout over the Howard Government in its first term, when he used his balance of power vote to milk every last cent from the Telstra sale for extravagant telecommunications funding for Tassie.

As a general rule you could shuffle all the Senators around in a big muddle and not know which state any of them are from, as they are loyal to Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott first and their electors second.

It’s this same party discipline which negates the role of the Senate in reviewing legislation. Laws are either backed or blocked along party lines. What scrutiny does go on through parliamentary committees could easily be done at the Lower House level. Same too for Estimates hearings, which so often look like the one day of the year when the Senators know they’re a chance of getting on the telly, and turn on the vaudeville accordingly.

The strongest argument for retaining a Senate and State Upper Houses is that they act as a safeguard against the abuse of power by governments, which are formed in the Lower House. But the counter-argument is that the best protection against such abuse comes from the people. With elections held every three years federally and every four years at the state level it’s the public which has the greatest power, guaranteed through the constitution, to turf out a government that has exceeded its mandate. The most recent federal election is a brilliant example – John Howard lucked his way into a Senate majority after flogging Mark Latham in 2004, and with a sudden rush of blood to the head introduced Workchoices. But he hadn’t revealed the details of his industrial overhaul ahead of the 2004 election, and it was this abuse of his mandate which helped seal his fate at the 2007 poll.

Then there’s the question of Upper Houses becoming dumping grounds for party hacks under factional fix-ups and get squares. Keating’s legendary sledge of the Senate as “unrepresentative swill” was typically harsh. Certainly there are many Upper House MPs who work hard and are motivated by a commitment to the greater good. But many of them don’t work hard at all – as any Lower House MP will tell you. It’s easy for them not to work because they don’t have electorates to serve, and because they’re guaranteed two terms, they can treat the intervening election as the equivalent of the old rest day in the cricket.

The Upper Houses abound with people who have been slotted into casual vacancies to solve internal party squabbles. In this sense it is the opposite of a meritocracy, and not really a world away from the offensive House of Lords system.

Only a few weeks ago the troubled NSW branch of the Labor Party gave us the bizarre spectacle of its state secretary, Matt Thistlewaite, being simultaneously shafted but also handed a plum Senate spot to save face. Thistlewaite had found himself in a bind as the boss at Sussex Street. He’d advised Nathan Rees to stand up to the factions, to take on Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid, by ambushing the parliamentary party at the ALP state conference with a new rule giving the premier sole power to appoint his own Cabinet. When the factions revolted, Thistlewaite lost his bottle and acquiesced to the plan to roll Rees and install Kristina Keneally as Premier. As a result of all this Thistlewaite found himself isolated and forced out from the top job, but with the plum Senate spot to sweeten the deal – despite the fact that Bob Carr’s former chief of staff Graham Wedderburn, a very capable hardhead who could easily make the ministry, had been promised the next vacancy.

It was a classic case of short-term party problem-solving which has no relationship to the public interest.

Tony Abbott is talking about a referendum on water rights; Kevin Rudd is threatening the same on his health takeover. Beyond these policy-based debates which could result in changes to the constitution, there’s an argument for a wider constitutional debate about the workings and structures of the Parliaments that make policy.

We might also want to revisit the state question too. I’m currently in South Australia where Mike Rann is seeking a third term on Saturday, Tassie is going to the polls that same day too, the Vics are scheduled to go soon…when you also factor local government into the equation, in this country of just over 21 million, having a job in politics is almost as commonplace as working in retail or manufacturing.

That’s a lot of white cars, parliamentary stroganoff and glossy fliers clogging your letterbox as your local state or federal member, or councillor, sees how many photos of themselves they can jam into an eight-page pamphlet which no sane person will read anyway.

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    • julia says:

      02:19pm | 16/03/10

      They don’t need an upper house. Geographically they’re not as big as the US or Australia so they don’t need one.

      Hell, in Qld we don’t have one. We do very nicely too.

      Except that One Nation blow out. But that was only because many National State MPs were dog lazy. Fat dog lazy.

    • Tex Ranger says:

      10:45am | 17/03/10

      You have got to be kidding me.  Qld is the perfect example of why a house of review is required.  Another option would be for Qld Parliament to move to an MMP voting system instead.

    • Tex Ranger says:

      02:33pm | 16/03/10

      If the Senate is supposed to be about the states and not parties, then scrap party identification, and above the line voting, on the Senate ballot paper.

    • iansand says:

      02:32pm | 16/03/10

      You lost your way a bit there.  Pity.

      One advantage of the HoL as it currently is is the ability to insert worthwhile people into Cabinet by appointing them to the HoL.  They can avoid elections.

      I have always thought he US Cabinet system of appointees from outside Congress as a good plan.  Maybe not the whole Cabinet so they are still subservient to Parliament, but the ability to recruit some members from outside party hackdom.  Assuming it is used correctly.

    • John A Neve says:

      02:40pm | 16/03/10

      The real question is how did all this come about in the first place?
      The answer is by force of arms, the sword is mightier than the yoke, serfs did as they were told.

      Down through the ages politicians of all persuasions have allowed this to continue. Again the question is why?  Reason, because power loves power.
      These people stick together, always have and always will. It filters downs, Kings, Queens, princesses (every little girl want’s to be one), PM’s, Presidents and pollies. Do you really think any of them care about YOU?

      This is all about power and control and all the time we fight amongst our selves they will maintain their control.

      Rudd or Abbott, it matters not, the great Tax Review, come on you all know who will pay in the end.

    • Aussie studying UK politics in London says:

      02:41pm | 16/03/10

      The interesting thing about the House of Lords is how incredibly politically astute they have been over the years in acting as a check against the wilder excess of the government of the day.

      The reason the government is so keen to get rid of them is that far from being ineffectual, they are a massive pain to governments who want to break with tradition. The list of issues and legislation the Lords have prevented is astonishing.

      They are rich, yes, they are mad but they are scarily effective at what they do and somewhat more progressive in their ideas than they are given credit.

      The British system whilst strange through Australian eyes is actually 100% let offensive than our manufactured mess, which purports egalitarianism whilst providing nothing of the sort and we don’t have history as an excuse.

      Compare British politics to ours and you begin to realise how offensive our system is.

      I mean, ‘secular’ Australia still thinks gay marriages/unions is a debatable issue. The poms (who still have a legislative link between the church and the state..so a much trickier environment) past that particular hurdle 5 years ago.

    • acker says:

      03:31pm | 16/03/10

      @Aussie studying UK politics in London ...thats because the poms are technically a Monarchial Theocracy, much like Iran would have been if the Shah and Ayatollah shared power at the same time.

    • Zeta says:

      02:48pm | 16/03/10

      I’m not going to say that the Upper Houses don’t need reform, because across the board they do. And they are dumping grounds for the major Party’s dregs.

      But they should be more, they were more, and they certainly shouldn’t be abolished.

      Take the NSW Legislative Council. The oldest continual legislature in the Southern Hemisphere. Were it not the Legislative Council, things in NSW, that are pretty bad right now, would be a lot worse.

      Were it not for the Legislative Council, huge chunks of the NSW ALP’s most toxic policies would have slipped through without debate. They’d have wasted $4 billion in electricity privatisation revenue on the failed CBD Metro program. Thanks to the Legislative Council, their privatisation plans were scraped. So to was their first abortive attempt at Lotteries privatisation, that would have punished small buisness owners.

      Knee jerk decisions about legislation made in the heat of media moments would simply be signed off into law were it not for the amendments of the Legislative Council. Only last week, the Government’s Police Pursuit laws, rushed in because of the death of a 19 month old girl on New Years Eve, were fixed so they were actually useable by Police. Again, if not for the Legislative Council and its oversight role, this wouldn’t have happened.

      Now those cases are high profile enough for a few people to acknowledge the work of the NSW Upper House. But it plays a host of other roles. The Legislative Council can disallow Government regulations, so even the Regulatory powers of Government, which can be quite far ranging and often abused are able to be examined and scraped if the community doesn’t want or need them.

      The Legislative Council has a Standing Order that can require Government departments to produce documents, even those deemed too sensitive to be released under FOI legislation. Were it not for the Legislative Council, a myriad of Government stuff ups would never have been brought to light.

      That’s to say nothing of the swift and effective way the Legislative Council can form a committee to investigate an issue.

      In fifteen minutes, Legislative Council question time will kick off, and unlike the lower houses of any other Parliament, behaviour will be gentlemanly and congenial. Actual answers will be given. A degree of respect will be shown.

      If you’re going to scrap anything, scrap the Legislative Assemblys and Houses of Represenatives, which waste taxpayer time on dorothy dixers and private members statements on Mrs. Smiggen’s pie sales.

      I heart you Legislative Council.

    • matt says:

      04:32pm | 16/03/10

      I suppose an Upper House that has the Shooters and 4WD nutbags can claim to be representative.

      After all, the tinfoil hat brigade vote too.

      Exhibit A: Steve Fielding, our Senatorial earthworm. I reckon Caligula’s horse had more intelligence than him…

    • Max says:

      03:10pm | 16/03/10

      Everyone has this big crush on democracy - but it’s not perfect by any means.  A benevolent dictator is generally much more efficient and effective.

      When you gather people in large groups their collective problem solving intelligence scales up well, but their collective decision making ability scales down quite badly.

    • Me says:

      04:27pm | 16/03/10

      The problem with benevolent dictators, Max, is that they don’t exist.

      Either that, or that when they die, supreme power is then transferred to another, who is not quite so benevolent.

    • Michael says:

      06:28pm | 16/03/10

      Max I think you left the ‘r’ out of your name

    • Nigel Catchlove says:

      06:27pm | 16/03/10

      The major difference between a dictatorship and a democracy (either left or right) is the source of power.  A dictator takes power but a democratic leader is given power.  For that reason alone a dictatorship will never be benevolent.

      One of the reasons why democracy in Australia is at such a low point is because the common person is too lazy to exercise their power.  If Abbott or Rudd was so bad, then people would simply vote them out at the next election.  It took a while, but the voters finally woke up to Pauline Hanson.  Senators are the same, people vote above the line and for party groupings because they are too idle to do otherwise.

    • Grumbles says:

      06:55pm | 16/03/10

      Hey, if efficiency is what you are after may aswell give cops the rights to execute criminals on the spot. Lefties all around the world gush about Castro but many living under his “benevolent” rule don’t feel the same way.

    • Matt Stewart says:

      07:16pm | 16/03/10

      Agreed, but benevolent dictatorships of course have their own problems, most notably:
      - Finding a competent benevolent one in the first place
      - Making sure they stay benevolent
      - Getting rid of them if they don’t stay benevolent
      - Making sure they don’t hand over to their favourite idiot wife/husband/child/best mate/hooker when they’re done.

      They can provide much better decision making and more effective government, but the lack of checks and balances introduces too much risk.

    • Max says:

      08:48am | 17/03/10

      The point I was trying to make (which may have been a bit obscure) was that removing the HoL simply because it’s ‘not democratic’ is not a good enough reason in my mind.  If the Lords simply satisfy their own needs at the expense of the majority then there is an arguement for reform; but let’s not pretend that elected officials aren’t lying, cheating, self serving power mongers.

      I’m sure there are a lot of responsible, upright, intelligent people who simply don’t want to get into politics because of the backstabbing and game playing - I think the HoL is, *ideally*, populated by these people.

    • Razor says:

      03:22pm | 16/03/10

      Get rid of the Senate.  Get rid of the States.  We are over governed.

      Zeta - NSW???? Jesus, if that is an Upper house working well, I’d hate to see one working poorly.

    • Alex says:

      03:40pm | 16/03/10

      I am so fed up nwith being bored to death with politics, they can all email in their queries and arguements to each other for all I care. But wait!! if they do that will it mean Tony Abbott will have more time for bicycle shorts and budgie smugglers ? cause that man turns me off my meals

    • Daniel says:

      04:34pm | 16/03/10

      The federal senate is a great house freview and should never be abolished.Howards control of both houses gave us work choices and we never want to go there again.

    • Eric says:

      04:39pm | 16/03/10

      We’d be better off abolishing the undemocratic Lower Houses. Single member, geographically based electorates empower the current Liberal-Labor duopoly.

      Proportional representation is much more democratic than the swill of the “Representatives”.

    • S. G. Fitzpatrick says:

      11:06am | 17/03/10

      I like proportional representation on paper but one only needs to look at the current situation in Belgium and The Netherlands to see the problems with that system. The ruling coalition in Holland disolved over a single issue and as a result the Dutch have to go to the polls early and the country is rudderless as Europe attempts to recover from the GFC.

    • Gavin says:

      06:01pm | 16/03/10

      “A benevolent dictator is generally much more efficient and effective”...to certain peoples. The ones that don’t benefit have no voice.

      I agree democracy can be annoying when the dull and ignorant have to be counted, but dictatorship gives one person far too much power.

    • Matthew says:

      06:23pm | 16/03/10

      The Senate does serve its role as a house of review, without it many smaller parties such as the Greens and Family First not to mention independents would not have any influence in policy. If one wants to increase democracy we need to allow the voice of minor parties to be heard. If we were to abolish the senate we would be over a million of people who vote for third parties without a chance for their views and opinions to be expressed in the parliament. I believe in the absolute power of a majority but I believe that without a strong minority, comes a more responsible and fair majority. Without a Senate we would become have a true party system, just like the united states and if anyone wants to look at a corrupt and inefficient system of government no one has to look much further. Also with abolition of the Senate our already relatively mundane political landscape will become even blander as all parties are forced to move even closer to the centre, and quite frankly with the loss of senator’s jobs will come the job’s of political
      reporters.

    • Matt Stewart says:

      07:06pm | 16/03/10

      I’m all for Senate reform, but not Senate abolition.  You are right that it does not work for it’s intended purposes, but reform could help fix that.  Here’s a few ideas:
      - Seat them in the chamber by state, not by party
      - Provide them with state caucus rooms
      - Forbid political party members from nominating for senate, and senators from join a political party
      - Remove ‘above the line’ voting
      - Divide each state into six regions and allocate them a region to represent
      - Make NT a state and give them a full contingent
      - Fix federal elections every four years (giving senators eight years)
      - Establish annual plenary sessions between senators and elected representatives of their respective state governments

      Just a few thoughts that I think would work together to help senators see their roles a little differently.

    • Tex Ranger says:

      10:49am | 17/03/10

      Don’t know why NT is entitled to a full contingent.  NT voted on becoming a state but the voters didn’t want it.

    • Matt Stewart says:

      11:59am | 17/03/10

      Its not about ‘entitlement’.  Its about giving all Australians the same rights and representations.  And about stacking the senate with so called ‘small states’.

    • Gavin says:

      01:47pm | 17/03/10

      Aboloshing the right to join a party in any official capacity will not stop “factions” from forming and power bases establishing themselves. At least with party politics, everyone knows it is happening and who sits where on issues…

    • Matt Stewart says:

      04:05pm | 17/03/10

      Gavin,

      The reforms I suggest are based on the assumption that you are right.  The goal is to direct that factionalism along state lines, with senators thinking about what is best for that state.  Ruling out political party membership is not foolproof, but it will help.  When you are a long term member of a party, many of your social networks operate through that party.  This provides a strong disincentive to vote against that party, as no one wants to be isolated by the cold shoulder of all of their friends.  If they can;t be party members, this disincentive will be reduced, but obviously not eliminated.

    • Davido says:

      08:59pm | 16/03/10

      I love the senate, I think they do a reasonable job at holding lower house in check.

      The extraordinary stability in Australian politics may be due to this.

    • John A Neve says:

      06:29am | 17/03/10

      Davido,
      “The extaordinary stability in Australian politics” is due for the most part to the lack of interest and understanding of most of us.

      The change in our political scene since the second world war is outstanding. To think we once had a train driver as our PM.
      Now we have teenagers straight from uni standing for parliament!!

      Come on Davido, politics today is not about community, it’s a job.

    • MarkB says:

      10:43pm | 16/03/10

      A good way to have the Senate represent the states, as it was designed to do, is to have the Senators elected by state MPs.

      The US Senate functioned this way for much of its history, and functioned as an effective check on power.

    • Ian Redfern says:

      02:36pm | 26/07/12

      About a month ago, a surgeon in his late ‘50’s (?) stood up at the end of the ABC Q and A program, and stated that he had taken 15 years to get to the position he held, and that many MP’s had little real “life experience”.  The MP he addressed basically laughed at him, and the program finished.

      I’ve been dealing with negligent and unrepresentative politicians at both federal and state level for the last 20 years who refuse to take action on a road safety issue which they have an obligation to address.  I’m sick of having to vote for these a**holes.

      Accordingly, I’m writing to the PM to request that all prospective MP’s undertake what virtually all other employees do - be given a job interview to determine their eligibility for the position.  Mind you, it’s probably like asking a lawyer to convict themselves, but it’s worth a try.

      I now consider this country to be a “benign dictatorship”; seems like the penal colony influence still hasn’t left us…

 

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