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Face off: is the Senate the new governing house of our parliament?

Brown talking up the Green’s role in the new Senate AAP/Alan Porritt.

One hundred and ten years after Federation, the Senate today helps to ensure that the Australian Parliament more closely reflects the will of the people. But despite assurances by Bob Brown in his speech to the National Press Club that the Greens will be “a secure rock in the Senate” capable of wielding the balance of power, the problem remains that with an ideologically driven party in the Senate, the house may overreach its review role and become an initiator of policy.

Bob Brown at the National Press Club.

Moving beyond a house of review

With the Greens, a party to the left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), gaining the balance of power in the Senate from 1 July, we have the prospect that Government policy will reflect the composition of the upper chamber rather than the lower house where governments are formed.The upper chamber will move effectively from reviewing government legislation to taking a role in initiating it.

In terms of voter first preferences, the composition of the Senate more accurately reflects the will of the people than the lower house. In the 2010 election, the Greens received around 12 per cent of first preferences in the lower house but won only one seat (Adam Bandt, Melbourne), less than one per cent of the 150 seats up for grabs. With a slightly higher vote in the Senate, the Greens received 6 of the 40 open positions, or 15 per cent.

Are they still ‘unrepresentative swill’?

The Australian Senate is probably the second most powerful upper house in the world, surpassed only by the US Senate on which it was modeled. Like the US Senate, it is the product of Federation and was intended to protect less populous states.

In Rome, the Senate protected the interests of that city’s great founding families. In the Australian colonies of the 19th century, upper houses protected the propertied from the redistributive ambitions of the working classes. There was even a brief attempt to replicate the British upper house by creating a “bunyip” aristocracy.

Unsurprisingly, early Labor policy was to abolish these reactionary bulwarks. But only in Queensland did ALP members of an upper house vote themselves out of existence.

Nor has the national ALP had much success in moving the party’s internal organisation away from the state-based federal model it adopted in 1900. Still, the tribal hostility to the bosses’ chamber is evident in Paul Keating’s famous “unrepresentative swill” remark of November 1992, long since a part of Australian political folklore.

Following the introduction of proportional voting for the Senate in 1949, and the rise of independents and third parties in recent decades, the Senate has become less of a States house and more of a challenge to the two party monopoly, which is exacerbated by tight party discipline.

It mixes things up a bit, and ensures that more of the policy negotiation takes place in public, including in the Parliament.

With a hung parliament, a house of review adds to the deliberative quality of Parliament.

Nevertheless, the Senate was never intended to be the driver of government policy and legislation.

There is a vast difference between a chamber where independents, or a centre party like the Australian Democrats, free of caucus voting, push amendments to improve Government legislation, and remove some of the nastier ideological bits, and a situation where the Government can get nothing through unless it is approved by the Greens or the conservative Coalition (unlikely with Abbott as leader).

Are the Greens the new Democrats?

For thirty years, the Australian Democrats, formed by a Liberal defector, tried to occupy a position in between the Coalition and Labor, with that quintessentially Australian slogan “Keeping the Bastards Honest”.

The Democrats fell apart when they got deeply involved in policy formulation, over the GST, rather than just the more equivocal role of review.

Many party insiders from both sides will tell you that a centre-biased Senate is a good thing for any Government because it provides an excuse for Governments to duck the demands of their ideological supporters.

When Howard won a majority of the Senate in 2004, so the argument goes, ideology took over and the result was the political disaster of WorkChoices.

Some commentators have speculated that many voters see the Greens as the new Democrats, an insurance policy against the Cabinet of the day having too much power. If that is true, then these voters could be in for a shock.

The Senate: Gillard’s new challenge

The Greens have ambitions well beyond reviewing other people’s legislation. They have their own policy ambitions, which attracted 1 in 8 voters at the last election, and their voting record in the Senate suggests they are not comfortable with compromise. After all, the Emissions Trading Scheme would be in place now if they were.

The Greens are also a disciplined party and will negotiate with the Government as a bloc, not as individuals.

Gillard’s challenge will be to get legislation through both houses of Parliament without allowing the Greens, with just nine Senators, to drive the bus. Gillard must ensure that the newly-constituted Senate does not push her Government off centre.

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