More than two centuries ago, the great conservative philosopher and politician Edmund Burke famously characterised parliament as being properly a “deliberative assembly”.
Today we can unpack deliberation to see that it requires two things: justification and reflection. Justification is the ability to make arguments on behalf of positions and policies. Reflection is the ability to listen to those arguments and be open to persuasion by them.
Australia’s federal parliament is today composed almost entirely of people who are good at justification but terrible at reflection. It is not a deliberative assembly in Burke’s sense, rather a theatre of expression where politicians from different sides talk past each other in mostly ritual performance. Party politicians do not listen, do not reflect and do not change their minds.
A true ‘house of review’?
If we were looking for reflection in Australia’s system, the one place we ought to find it is the Senate. Traditionally, upper houses were supposed to be “houses of review” that could control the excesses to which lower houses might be prone.
The proper division of labour would then be a bit like a jury trial, where we have justification or advocacy confined to one chamber – the courtroom, where lawyers argue cases for their clients – and reflection in another chamber – the jury room. We do not let the advocates enter the jury room.
Unfortunately the Australian parliament today has two chambers of justification and no chamber of reflection. And the government’s proposed changes to the way Australians elect their senators will only worsen this reality.
The shining exceptions to this generalisation about lack of reflection come in the form of some of the senators who found their way into the Senate at the 2013 election through the existing system, which makes it possible for individuals to be elected without any of the major parties sponsoring them.
I am thinking especially of the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir, though perhaps Palmer United Party-turned-independent Glenn Lazarus can sometimes show a hint of the same virtue.
Muir does exactly what a senator should. He approaches issues with few preconceived positions, listens to the arguments on different sides, then makes up his mind on how to vote. Except for issues involving cars, it is hard to predict how he will vote based on the party he was elected to represent.
Muir makes up his mind based on how he thinks the proposed policy will affect ordinary Australians like himself. It is his very ordinariness that makes him such a good senator. On the former Abbott government’s proposed deregulation of universities, he said:
What should I tell my children when they ask me why the government wants to deregulate the sector, which could put universities out of reach for millions of ordinary Australians?
When Muir entered parliament, journalists would make fun of the fact that he was not very articulate or knowledgeable, though eventually he found his voice. But that is irrelevant. His proper task is reflection, not justification.
More career politicians
When selecting a jury, we insist that its members have no prior commitments on the case they are hearing.
When we elect a Senate, we should do the same – but not when it comes to the House of Representatives. That is where we can and should vote for people based on their prior commitments and known partisanship.
In this light, Australia’s political system would be better off with more ordinary people and fewer career party politicians in the Senate. The Senate would thus be more representative of ordinary Australians, not less.
If a quirky electoral system with an element of randomness can sometimes promote this possibility, so much the better. When thinking about reform, we should try to identify ways to strengthen the role of ordinary people in our democracy.
What we will get instead, if the changes being pushed by an unholy alliance of the Coalition and the Greens are adopted, is exactly the opposite.
Paul Keating once memorably described the Senate as “unrepresentative swill”. The proposed reform will ensure the Senate is composed almost exclusively of career politicians, who are unrepresentative in the sense that they do not reflect the social composition of Australia. This will also ensure that one of the last vestiges of reflection is purged from our parliamentary system.
This is a sad day for deliberation and for democracy. Edmund Burke will surely be turning in his grave.