Sex Party could help Pauline slip into senate

While Labor seems to be sailing to a fate similar to the original Titanic come September 7, a swirling maelstrom of murky Senate preference deals could provide life jackets to a very mixed bag of Senate hopefuls including Pauline Hanson, writes John Mikkelsen 

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The Senate: An Oxymoron of Democracy

  1. Keith

The entire concept of an Upper House causes as many problems as it solves, according to Keith Topolski

Will Rogers once queried what would happen to the United States with a House and Senate, given Ancient Rome imploded with just a Senate.

Examining the usefulness of the Senate is quite appropriate given there is currently a rather energetic debate in Canada concerning what to do with the Senate in Ottawa.

The current Senate has no requirements for provincial representation, nor does the Canadian Senate represent the people. Its' members are appointed by the Government of the day.

However, this raises the broader question of the relevance of an Upper House in modern times.

In its dying days, the former British Labour Government decided it would push ahead with reforms to the House of Lords, by making it fully democratic.

This debate raises two questions.

Firstly, is a second House of Parliament really relevant in today's political structure?

If it is, what form should this House take?

The answer to the former question effectively relies on the status of the Lower House of Parliament.

The status I refer to, of course, is the political equivalent of kissing your sibling: The Hung Parliament.

In the non-Presidential systems utilised by Canada, Britain and Australia, there are only two layers of Government you need to manipulate to enforce your agenda.

However, the usefulness of a House of Review differs based upon whether the Government of the day has pure control of the people's house.

In Canada, they currently enjoy a pleasure Australians and the British do not-a majority Government.

The Harper Government can pass whatever it likes through the Lower House without anyone calling it to account, and by quirk of timing, the Harper Government also controls the appointed Canadian Senate as well.

Naturally, if a Senate acts merely as a rubber stamp, it would take a true Humphrey Appleby to argue for the Senate's retention.

However, in Australia's case, the Humphrey's of the world would also be rearing their heads, trying to justify the retention of the Senate in the current political climate.

With a Minority Labor Government in Canberra having to negotiate the passage of legislation with a rag-tag team of Labor, Green and Independent MPs, is it really necessary for a bill to go through a second round of wrangling?

Of course not.

However, we have not yet covered what is the normal state of affairs in the Australian tradition.

A Majority Government in the People's House without control of the Senate.

This is where the Senate's role as 'House of Review' does play a vital role.

By taking the hard edges off Government legislation, the Senate allows for a slightly broader consensus to be achieved, provided the Senate takes its' role seriously, and doesn't have a tantrum like the Greens are prone to do.

This is a valuable service, not just for the public, but for the Government, who can be offered an opportunity to avoid a very difficult political situation.

Having established the usefulness of the House of Review, there remains the question of format.

There are two questions surrounding the format of the House of Review.

The first is the merit of a democratised Senate.

By making provisions for a single individual to appoint members, as currently happens in Canada and Britain, the Senate serves as nothing more as a dumping ground for annoying MPs or a pasture to put older MPs in after they have outlived their usefulness.

By democratising the Senate, the House of Review remains a genuine House of Review, rather than a rubber stamp.

Furthermore, the state-based democratic Senates which exist in Australia and the United States allow for each state to have an equal say, ensuring the larger states do not merely overrun the smaller states by virtue of a larger population.

The second question is whether the House of Review should be its own House or whether it should form part of a single chamber.

I raise this possibility because it is the system which has been adopted in New Zealand.

In New Zealand, a number of MPs are elected via proportional representation, in addition to those elected via the traditional electorate system.

The alternative is to have two separate chambers, which, as has already been discussed, causes massive problems when no one party has a majority in either chamber. 

What to do? The solution is simple:

  1. Have a single chamber of Parliament, which allows for two thirds of its members to be elected via the electoral system, and one third of its members elected via proportional representation 
  2. Have members elected by proportional representation to be elected by state or province, to ensure the big states do not dwarf the smaller states
  3. Governments to be formed by testing their support amongst the members elected via the electorate system only, with proportionally elected members not allowed to vote on motions of confidence, nor for their numbers to be counted when forming Government

This system may appear to be awkward, but it avoids the drama of Minority Government, while also avoiding the stagnation of having two chambers not controlled by the Government of the day.

This also allows for Governments elected without a clear majority to be held accountable, while those Governments which are elected with a booming mandate, like the O'Farrell Government in NSW, is not held hostage by a House of parliament which was half-elected in what is almost another political lifetime.

Keith Topolski is a former member of the NSW Young Liberal Executive and is currently completing a Bachelor of Communications 


EXCLUSIVE SCOOP #2: Liberal Senate Leadership Results

Jim Richardson comes back exclusively to Menzies House readers with the results of the Senate deputy leadership ballot.

Eric Abetz is the new Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and, as predicted, George Brandis is the new Deputy. 

With 18 votes, including the backing of key senior figures in the Senate, his victory was decisive over Mathias Cormann who received eight votes. Ian Macdonald received five votes to come in third place.

[Editor's note – thanks Jim for keeping us in the loop!]

EXCLUSIVE SCOOP: Inside the Liberal Senate Deputy Leadership Battle

Jim Richardson analyses the likely outcome of this afternoon's Liberal Senate Leadership ballot. What are your predictions? Comment below.
 
UPDATE: Check out the results here

The Liberal Senate leadership will be thrown open this afternoon with highly regarded Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz all but assured of the top job with main rival and Victorian powerbroker Michael Ronaldson not expected to contest the leadership. Well, not this time, anyway.

The Deputy position however will be a bit more interesting. It is likely to be a three-horse race, with Queensland Senators George Brandis and Ian Macdonald expected to nominate, along with West Australian Mathias Cormann.

It is widely accepted that George Brandis has the support of leader Tony Abbott with insiders also reporting that retiring Senate leader and conservative power-broker Nick Minchin is also backing his candidacy. To make matters worse for the other candidates, Eric Abetz is also reportedly backing Brandis. Despite some of his less than conservative policy positions in previous years, Brandis is highly regarded across the board within the Coalition party room as an intellectual and as a quality performer in the Senate. As the only candidate who is currently in the Shadow Cabinet, his seniority is likely to be recognised by his colleagues and he is the hot favourite to win the position.

Following Tony Abbott’s ascension to the Liberal leadership late last year, Mathias Cormann was elevated to his current position as Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Apprenticeships and Training working under the Employment and Workplace Relations Shadow (and leadership heir apparent) Eric Abetz.

Cormann’s rise through the Coalition ranks has been impressive considering that he has been in the Senate for less than three years. However, reports from the Senate suggest that his high-pressure campaign for the Deputy’s position may cost him votes come this afternoon with some Senators tipped to defect to either Brandis or Macdonald. His influence on the conservative WA division’s State Council hasn’t been lost on his colleagues in his home state however, with most of the WA Senators expected to support their ideological ally at least in part as an act of self-preservation.

Ian Macdonald is not likely to gain enough votes to be a serious contender for the spot, with less than five votes expected to be cast in his favour (considerably more than the one vote he got last time he put his hand up). His primary effect on the ballot will be to draw some critical support away from Cormann that might otherwise have made the contest a tight one, all but ensuring a clear win for Brandis.

Some media outlets are reporting that Michael Ronaldson will throw his hat in the ring for the Deputy position, though this is not expected. Even if he did, he would probably only receive as many votes as Ian Macdonald if he was lucky.

The big (albeit hardly reported) factor in the run for the Deputy’s position has been Victorian Senator Mitch Fifield. Following an approach by conservative elements of the Party to contest the Deputy position, he decided against the move. Given that Fifield is respected by both the conservative and classical-liberal elements of the Party, he would most likely have out-polled George Brandis (assuming Cormann was not running) and acted as a strong, unifying force in the Liberal Senate team following Nick Minchin’s resignation.

In sum; Eric Abetz will be the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and George Brandis his Deputy. However, the Deputy’s position could have (and probably would have) gone to Mitch Fifield had the conservatives organised themselves a bit better a few weeks ago.

Senate protects us from bad government

Mathias-Cormann Senator Mathias Cormann argues that the Senate isn't being obstructive, it's just doing its job.

Governments of either persuasion don’t like it when they don’t get their own way in the Senate.  However, in recent days the Rudd government has taken the levels of whinging, moaning and sulking about so called ‘Senate obstruction’ to new levels. No doubt this is all part of a deliberate pre-election strategy, seeking to justify the government’s failings and perhaps even the need for a double dissolution election.

No less than five senior Ministers fronted a press conference last week accusing the Senate of the worst obstruction in 30 years, while the Prime Minister shouted ‘get out of our way’.

The Prime Minister took hysterical pre-election spin another step further when, incredibly, he compared himself to Barrack Obama and the troubles he is facing in getting health care reform through the US Senate. Whatever the merits of Obama’s reform proposals, where Kevin Rudd did nothing to progress health reform for more than 2 years in office, at least Barrack Obama put his political neck on the line pushing for the passage of his healthcare reform plan in his first year in office. Kevin Rudd promised the world on health before the last election. He supposedly had a plan to fix public hospitals. Yet, rather than implement that plan he did nothing post-election other than run a 20-month review, followed by a review into that same review with photo opportunities around Australia. Yes and he sought to impose a number of spending cuts on privately insured Australians to help fund his reckless spending in other areas. And now, with the proverbial five minutes to go before the next election we are promised another plan to fix public hospitals. Go and figure!

But I digress.

Getting back to the main point – our Senate is not obstructionist. Our Senate is doing the job it was set up to do. As Senators we are doing the job we were elected to do and that is what the public expects of us.

As legislators we have a responsibility to make a judgement on legislation put forward by the government of the day. Put simply, if the government puts forward good legislation we will support it, and if they put forward bad legislation, which in our judgement is not in the public interest, we will oppose it.

At times of course the government will cave in to pressure from the Coalition and crossbench Senators and reconsider bad legislation or negotiate necessary improvements. Take the government’s attempt to cut patient rebates for cataract surgery in half. A measure which would have hurt hundreds of thousands of mostly elderly patients, who would no longer have been able to afford access to this life changing surgery or who would have been forced to join lengthy public hospital queues. Or the government’s attempt to impose a $100 million funding cut on chemotherapy treatment, which would have hurt thousands of cancer patients across Australia. Senate scrutiny and ultimately opposition forced the government back to the drawing board on both of these, leading to better outcomes for patients across Australia. There are many other such examples.

However, some measures cannot be improved even by amendments. The government’s great big new tax on emissions for example, which if passed would push up the price of everything, cost jobs and put pressure on our economy without reducing global emissions. Or Labor’s broken promise on private health insurance rebates, which would lead to additional pressure on our public hospitals, increased costs and fewer people in private health insurance. Or the government’s attempt last week to push through legislation to force the break-up of Telstra – a publicly listed company. No pre-election mandate, no proper justification, serious implications for hundreds of thousands of mum and dad investors and tens of thousands of Telstra staff and why? To cover up the government’s failure to deliver on its ill-thought out pre-election promise to deliver on a national broadband network.

With all this it is important to remember that the Coalition cannot stop legislation in the Senate on its own. Government legislation only gets defeated if other Senators agree with our judgement that a particular piece of legislation is flawed and not in the public interest.

At times, the government gets their way even though in our judgement they shouldn’t have. The government’s reckless spending through its $42 billion stimulus package is a high profile example of that. The government was able to get that through the Senate after negotiation with crossbench Senators. Considering the results of the home insulation fiasco, the widespread waste and mismanagement in the school halls program and the upward pressure Labor’s reckless spending has put on interest rates since. If only the Senate had stood firm on that occasion as well.

Governments not having a majority in the Senate makes for better policy outcomes and for better government. In the House of Representatives the government has the power of numbers and will always win the day, even if they’re obviously going down the wrong path. However, in the Senate, given the government doesn’t have the numbers they have to better justify their decisions – not only to the Senate, but ultimately to the public at large. That is an important safeguard.

This is a deliberate part of the checks and balances imposed by our forefathers on any Commonwealth Government in our Constitution.

The Rudd government has become arrogant very quickly. They don’t accept or respect the legitimate and important role of the Senate to scrutinise legislation and the performance of the government. Yet, considering the Senate’s track record both in recent times and throughout our history, it has served us very well as a safeguard against bad government.

Mathias Cormann is a Liberal Senator for Western Australia and the Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Apprenticeships and Training.

Freedom of religion

Cory-Bernardi Go through the High Court if you want to pursue the Church of Scientology, not the Senate, writes Senator Cory Bernardi.

Last week I was asked to vote for a Senate inquiry into the conduct of the Church of Scientology. The actual wording of the motion wasn't that direct but the intention of those supporting it was absolutely clear.

According to the advocates for the motion, Scientology wasn't a religion but a money-making enterprise that was ruining people's lives. They regarded the conduct of Scientology as reprehensible and detailed allegations of child labour, intimidation and forced abortions.
Perhaps the allegations are true. If that is the case, there is a formidable array of government agencies that have the power to investigate clear breaches of our laws and regulations. On the other hand, maybe the allegations are not true and simply the result of some disgruntled former Scientologists.

Either way, I am opposed to a Senate inquiry into the Church of Scientology because it calls into question our constitutional right (under section 116) to freedom of religion.

Now let me be very clear that I have no affinity or attachment to the Church of Scientology. I don't share their beliefs or subscribe to their operations. However, I do support their right to exist on the basis that they were recognised as a religion by the High Court of Australia in 1983.

Accordingly, they are given the same benefits as other religious organisations, no more and no less. Those seeking to remove this right have only a few options. Two possibilities would be to change the tax exempt status of all religious institutions in Australia or to impose some additional test before granting religions special tax status.

It is worth noting that the Government has just concluded a review of the entire taxation system (the Henry review) which is scheduled for release in the next couple of months. One would reasonably expect that tax exempt organisations would be considered as part of this process and, to my mind, the Senate shouldn't initiate an inquiry of its own until we have seen what the Government already proposes.

Another option for those who wish to see Scientology lose its status as a religion would be to ask the High Court to reconsider their original judgment. If, according to comments made in the Senate last week by Senator Xenophon, the original judgment was 'flawed', this would seem to be the best course of action.

That way, the case for and against their religious status could be heard by our highest judicial officers without fear of compromising the freedom of religion enshrined in our Constitution.

Senator Cory Bernardi is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition and a Senator for South Australia. His personal blog can be found at http://www.corybernardi.com.

Question time or a waste of time?

Alan-Ferguson Question time still needs further reform, argues Senator the Hon Alan Ferguson.

During my term as President of the Senate, I set out to try to reform the procedures for the conduct of Question Time in the Senate.  Some naïve souls may assume that ministers will answer the questions without notice given to them at 2pm on any given sitting day.  I am not one of those.  In my experience, direct answers to questions are few and far between.

For many decades, question time was an opportunity to seek information from the government and ministers answered questions knowing that they faced the threat of severe political sanctions if they gave misleading or evasive answers.  The rot did not start with the televising of question time in 1990.  It was already evident in such well-established practices as the provision of “possible parliamentary questions” to ministers by their departments, with additional gloss from their personal offices.  These increasingly voluminous question time briefs fuelled the plague of what we now call “Dorothy Dixers”.  Before long, question time became a choreographed affair which appeared to be conducted largely for the benefit of the press gallery who reduced their commentary to an assessment of which side landed the best blows. 

All sides of politics, and the media, have contributed to the general degradation of what should be a very important instrument of accountability.  In its current degraded form, question time is a major contributor to declining perceptions of parliament and parliamentarians by a community which sees us as scuttlebutt-peddling politicians.  It is, in my view, in its current form, largely a waste of time.

In August 2008 I issued a discussion paper on the revitalisation of question time.  The paper looked at how to make question time more effective and to focus the discussion even further, specific proposals were circulated.  The main features were:

  • all primary questions to be placed on a Question Time Notice Paper by 11 am on the day of answering;
  • up to six supplementary questions following each primary question (including from questioners other than the primary questioner);
  • up to two minutes for an answer to each primary or supplementary question;
  • answers to be directly relevant to each question.

There was wide ranging debate on the proposals and, I have to say, a degree of disagreement with their objectives. I was keen, however, for the new ideas to be at least tried and when the Procedure Committee reported again in November 2008, a majority of the committee recommended the trial of a modified proposal for a more limited change to question time, while acknowledging the intent of the original proposals to enhance the accountability of ministers to Parliament. The modified proposal’s key uptake was that answers were to be required to be directly relevant to the question.

The Senate has trialled the modified proposals since the last two weeks of sitting in 2008.  Most recently, the procedures were reviewed by the Procedure committee in its fourth report at the end of 2009 whereby it recommended the continuation of the new rules with one further modification be trialled: Supplementary questions would be restricted to thirty seconds to encourage conciseness and to provide time for a further one or two more questions.

Although a work in progress, changing the way Question Time operates in the Senate is something I still feel strongly about; it is the most publicly visible activity in parliament – the bit we're likely to see on the television news or hear on the radio and so it helps to shape our view of politicians. It's hardly surprising then that some members of the public hold our elected representatives in fairly low regard, since Question Time remains a farce. It is my hope that in trialling these new rules, we can move towards a Question Time where Members and Senators can hold the government of the day to account for their actions or inactions.

Senator the Hon Alan Ferguson is the Deputy President of the Senate and a Liberal Senator for South Australia.