Making the swill less unrepresentative
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.
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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