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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18746

Mr KING (5:24 PM) —Australia can be proud of its democratic traditions and history. In so many ways we have been at the forefront of the development of those democratic principles and standards that have revolutionised nation-states. The establishment of universal female suffrage, the creation of an Australian nation through the ballot box and the orderly way in which we moved from imperial legislative authority to stand on our own two feet are all benchmarks we have set for other nations.

In a world in which totalitarianism and repression suppress the freedoms of so many people, it is often too easy to forget the blessings of our democratic heritage. To my mind, there is one major task that is yet to be completed in that process. That is to overcome the vestiges of what I would describe as the `federation compromise' which prevents this parliament from being able to proclaim itself as truly democratic, where the vote of one citizen has no more value than that of another. I refer specifically to the need to institute fundamental reforms to the way in which the Australian Senate operates.

Debate about the powers and composition of the Senate is not new, as we know from the current debate about the deadlock provisions of the Australian Constitution. The Prime Minister has foreshadowed a discussion paper on that issue, which is a development that we should all welcome. But a debate about deadlock provisions needs to be seen as more than a debate about mandates or difficulties that particular governments might have in securing parliamentary support for their legislative program. I firmly believe that that issue is just part of what should be broader debate about whether the Australian polity can be described as genuinely democratic while the Senate exists in its current form.

While there are those that claim the Senate is the protector of our democratic rights —for example, the Australian Greens and the other minor parties in that place—the reality is that the Senate is a fundamentally undemocratic institution. Democracy is about ensuring that all citizens have an equal opportunity to determine their governments and parliaments. While over 6.6 million residents of NSW elect the same number of senators as the 470,000 residents of Tasmania, our Senate can not be regarded as holding true to the democratic concept. The Senate is in fact elected through a gross malapportionment that bears no correlation to the principle of one vote, one value.

In the century since federation, the operation of the party system—which produces results in each state Senate vote that would broadly reflect a strict proportional vote—has meant that the undemocratic basis of the Senate has perhaps not attracted the attention that it deserves. However, apart from reasons of principle which provide a strong case for reform, developments that will occur over the next 50 years will put that system under strain. Specifically, if the Northern Territory ever decides to seek statehood, the concept of 200,000 Territorians electing the same number of senators as other states will surely rankle. And, with a larger population than the Northern Territory, it would be patently wrong for the ACT to remain with a smaller number of senators. Similarly, the Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts that the population of the ACT will overtake that of Tasmania at some stage in the next 50 years. Can Australian democracy tolerate a situation where a larger jurisdiction has a smaller representation in the Senate than another? Of course, these problems could be addressed by increasing the number of senators from the ACT so that it is treated in the same way as a state. But these practical examples do serve to highlight how much the Senate undermines the claim that the federal parliament is democratic in its construct.

I appreciate that there are many within the community and this place who will counterargue that the Australian system is a compromise between democratic principles and federalism. But is this really appropriate and, if it originally was at the time of federation, can anyone seriously argue that the Senate has been true to its intended role as a states' house and the protector of federalism? The considerable centralisation of power in the Commonwealth at the expense of the states points to the Senate being a poor defender of their interests. Australia should strive to ensure that our representative institutions of government are democratic in both principle and practice. Two obvious paths present themselves to ensure that our Senate reflects that goal.

The first would be to reform the Senate to institute one vote, one value, which in practice would mean allocating Senate seats according to the size of state and territory populations. It would be the most democratic solution and would alleviate the oddities caused by the significant disparity of state population sizes. However desirable such a course, it is unlikely to be a model that could ever be transported from the realms of vision to that of reality. Section 128 of our Constitution stipulates that proposed changes to that document must enjoy both a national majority and majorities in more than half the states. It is almost impossible to envisage a situation where the smaller states would support reform that reduced their representation in the Senate, even in an Australia that sees federalist sentiment on the decline—except on the sporting field. Too easily opponents would produce the bogey of an Australian Senate dominated by a Sydney-Melbourne axis. Perhaps time will make this fairest of options more palatable, but for the foreseeable future it is not realistic.

The other alternative falls more squarely within the range of reforms that the Prime Minister has alluded to, but perhaps with a slightly different reasoning. The more realistic is for the Australian community and its elected representatives to recognise that the Senate is an undemocratic institution and that it should therefore not continue to have the power to block legislation. While we do not need to go as far as the British did in 1911 under Herbert Asquith, a Liberal prime minister, when they finally clipped the wings of their undemocratic upper house at the beginning of the last century, there is certainly a strong case for a middle course between the status quo and the British model. That can most effectively be achieved by reforming the deadlock procedures of the Constitution. I would add my own voice to those that argue that joint sittings should be permissible without recourse to a double dissolution election—that after legislation has been rejected on two or three occasions a joint sitting becomes available to the government of the day.

The role of the Senate in such a joint sitting is certainly stronger than that given to the House of Lords. But it must be recognised that an easier mechanism for deadlock resolution will weaken the power of the Senate. While I believe such an approach is desirable while the Senate remains undemocratically elected, such reforms should be matched by others that strengthen the Senate's role as a house of review. In other words, the resolution of deadlock provisions should be just one part of an overall reform package. Creating a culture of greater independence and questioning whether strict party discipline is necessary on non-essential legislation would improve the functioning of the Senate as a review chamber. It is time, for example, that we considered whether it is appropriate that ministers of the Crown can be drawn from the Senate. The potential for members of executive government to be chosen from amongst senators undoubtedly weakens the Senate's independence.

Similarly, the role of Senate committees could be further strengthened in a way that mirrors the US congressional committee system. Senate committee chairs and committees should be given additional resources to allow them to play a more significant role in public debate, and parties represented on these committees could be permitted to engage advocates who are able to participate in public hearings and research staff. I also see no practical reason why—apart from ancient rivalries in Great Britain—Senate committees should not be given the capacity to call ministers from the House of Representatives to appear before them and estimates hearings. It is also time we considered whether the Senate should be given a role in vetting, through its committee processes, key statutory appointments like judges to the family, federal and high courts, ambassadorial appointments and other positions like Governor of the Reserve Bank or Chair of the Australian Heritage Commission. While I do not suggest a power of veto, such reforms could introduce greater transparency to the appointment process for key government positions.

In summary, what I am suggesting is that the choice before Australia is, ultimately, whether we reform the Senate to make it truly democratic or whether we accord it powers that reflect the fact that it is currently far from the democratic ideal. The latter path is the only option that is likely to prove successful while providing the opportunity for the Senate's role as a house of review to be strengthened. Those in the Senate and the broader community who seek to preserve the status quo must explain why Australia, as it enters its second century as a free nation, should allow such an undemocratic chamber to continue unaltered.