Keep the Upper House until they fix the Lower House
In his personal review of his legacy to South Australia, Premier Rann had two main regrets. The first was his inability to abolish the Legislative Council.
This has been a key aim of the Labor party for over a hundred years.
The passion flows from the fact that Labor has never won a majority of the seats in the Council.
For 70 of the hundred years, the two reasons were the property based vote, and the heavy bias in favour of the Liberal-dominated rural areas built into the electoral geography. Both were abolished in the 1970s.
But the replacement system, a single electorate and proportional representation, which Labor supported, has kept both Labor and Liberal short of a majority.
Abolition was not really a possibility. The independents, minor parties and the Liberals would never vote for it. Reform was possible, but the Rann reform plan was obviously an attempt to produce a system which would benefit Labor.
Mr Rann was also severely critical of “major parties appointing factional hacks” to the Council, whose “main contribution to political life will be factional obedience”. He makes a good point.
Labor has used the Council as a repository for faction and union members as a reward for long service. But it needs to be remembered that this is Mr Rann’s party, and there has been no public criticism of the trend towards “hacks” until now.
His second criticism was that single issue minority interests can be elected on a handful of votes, and they can have a disproportionate influence.
The “handful of votes” is true. Dignity For Disabled MLC Kelly Vincent was elected on a primary vote of 122. No Pokies Ann Bressington was elected with 32 primary votes.
But to criticise such results ignores some major party Council members who also scored very few votes.
Consider the following from the 2006 and 2010 Council elections. From Labor - Russell Wortley (152 votes), Robert Sneath (185), Bernard Finnigan (113); from Liberal John Dawkins (117), Terence Stephens (125), Jing Lee (108).
Not much sign of a massive level of support there.
Some people believe that the key component of a parliamentary democracy is that the party which has the numbers to form a government should have the authority to govern, and to put its policy proposals into law. It should not have to run the gamut of a second house which it does not control. That is a reasonable argument.
But only if the government remains committed to full discussion, open government, freedom of information, being responsible to the parliament and, through the parliament, to the people.
Modern Australian governments do not show any real commitment to these principles. Hence the need for a second chamber which has the potential to force a government to be more democratic.
On Mr Rann’s complaints about party hacks appointed to the Legislative Council, especially when there is a casual vacancy, the solution is simple. Continue the count from the last election, as happens in Tasmania.
That way, the person who fills the casual vacancy would be elected, not appointed. On his complaints about members elected on miniscule levels of votes, the solution is again simple.
Abolish voting above the line, and allow electors to have optional preferential voting.
His proposal to abolish the Council altogether may find more support if the House of Assembly was reformed.
At a minimum, those reforms would include proportional representation in multi-member electorates, optional preferential voting, an independent Speaker, a proper committee system in the parliament, and much more respectful and civilized behaviour in the house.
Until then, the Legislative Council does have a real role to play.
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