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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22854


Mr ORGAN (7:55 PM) —On 8 October this year, the Prime Minister released to the House Resolving deadlocks: a discussion paper on possible changes to section 57 of the Australian Constitution. I was somewhat amused by the now predictable choice of language by the Prime Minister when he spoke to this discussion paper in the House in the following terms:

The purpose of releasing this discussion paper is to initiate a widespread debate throughout Australia regarding a very moderate and reasonable proposal for possible amendment of section 57 of the Australian Constitution.

Moderate and reasonable—I remember the PM's very conciliatory tone at the time. However, after a year in this place, I am getting used to the very blatant misrepresentation and twisting of the facts by our Prime Minister. This is yet another example.

This proposal is not `very moderate and reasonable'; it is a very blatant attempt to severely curb the power of the Senate. In fact, if the Prime Minister had his way the Senate, a legitimate and important arm of our democracy, would no longer have any real or effective power; that much is clear. So, from the outset, I contest the Prime Minister's assertion that this proposal is `very moderate', because it is far from being that, and the Prime Minister should be honest about that. Also, it is not a `reasonable' proposal, and the Prime Minister should not dress it up as such. This proposal is in fact quite extreme and its consequences very serious.

In his speech on 8 October the Prime Minister went on to say:

The first point I would make is that these proposals do not represent an attack on the powers of the Senate. They do not represent an attempt to remove the fundamental role or the fundamental influence of the Senate ...

Yes, they do actually; and the facts show that. Let us just look at some of them. Analysis of legislation debated in the parliament since 1973 shows that less than three per cent of government legislation is blocked in the Senate. The argument that reform of the Senate is essential to ensure a workable democracy is contradicted by the facts. During the term of the Howard government, of 1,305 bills presented for a vote only 36 have been voted down or laid aside. In fact, over 98 per cent of the 5,467 bills voted on in the Senate over the past 30 years have been passed.

In correspondence received by the Greens from Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, the truth behind the government's supposed `very moderate and reasonable' reform proposal becomes very clear. For example, in that correspondence Mr Evans says:

Mr Howard's proposal is that, whenever the Senate fails to pass government legislation, the government should be able to hold a joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament to pass that legislation.

The flaw in this proposal has been readily identified: it would allow the government (except in the unusual circumstances of a government majority of only one or two seats in the House of Representatives) to pass any and all legislation without regard to the Senate.

With this power, a government could pass legislation to avoid scrutiny of its actions and to perpetuate itself in power, for example, by altering the electoral law.

This sounds anything but a `very moderate and reasonable' proposal to me. My own view—and the term of this government so far has driven this point home very strongly for me—is that the Senate provides a crucial stopper, preventing the complete power of one political perspective from dominating our Australian democracy. People I have spoken to in my seat of Cunningham have expressed similar concerns and see the PM's moves as an attack on the very heart of our democracy.

Proposals from any government must be moderated when they are too extreme. The Senate prevents one party or a coalition of parties of one particular political persuasion from completely dominating with their legislative agenda. As has been demonstrated by research carried out by the Australian Greens, the Howard government has never received more than 47.2 per cent of the vote at a general election and usually very much less than that in the Senate. The most extreme legislative plans of the government have been moderated by the Senate, and I am sure many Australians have been very relieved by this.

We live in a community where we accept and embrace a plethora of opinions. We embrace diversity. To effectively remove the power of different voices who have been legitimately elected to represent Australians of a variety of persuasions flies in the face of the Australian democratic tradition. Howard's way would effectively enable one political persuasion to dominate and would diminish the power of Australians to determine whom they want representing their views. It would prove a savage blow to our assurance of a workable, lively democracy. The Prime Minister has stated:

I make the point that when you are looking at the behaviour of the Senate, or sections of the Senate, you do not look at the number of government bills that have been passed; you look at the number of important government bills that have been passed. Of course, most legislation numerically described is passed by the Senate without demur, because most legislation is uncontroversial and does not produce any kind of political divide within the Australian community.

Here, the Prime Minister is talking about the creation of a political divide within the Australian community. The Senate ensures that a variety of political views must be considered when legislation is presented to the Australian parliament, and no political party will dig their heels in unreasonably, because of the electoral disadvantage that they will necessarily endure come the next election if they do so without reasonable political justification.

At present, different sections of the Australian community are represented in the Senate and in this House, ensuring that one political persuasion cannot dominate. In a democracy they should not be entitled to. It is precisely the exacerbation of the political divide—that is, a situation where one side of the political divide is able to dominate completely—that the Senate currently guards against. The Greens are firmly opposed to the Prime Minister's plan to take away the legitimate power of one of our houses of parliament, and we will fight this plan in the community and ensure that the Australian people are aware that the Prime Minister wishes to deal a perhaps fatal blow to our assurance of democratic representation.

I was fascinated to read a paper presented by Senator Helen Coonan, the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, at the Australian Davos Connection Leadership Conference held on Hayman Island on 23 August 2003. This paper, I believe, best outlines the government's underlying aims and objectives with regard to their proposal for Senate reform. In her speech Senator Coonan presented a very sound justification for the existence of an unfettered house of review in our federal parliament. She said:

Let there be no mistake. An efficient and hard working Senate, scrutinising, criticising and examining legislation and keeping the government accountable, is a great institutional safeguard for all Australians.

It is no surprise that Senator Coonan blotted her copybook somewhat by then drifting into emotive bleating about obstructionism. Apparently, for Senator Coonan sometimes the Senate does its job and sometimes it does not. On the one hand, it is an essential institution but, on the other hand, it is at times a pesky obstruction. I guess it just depends on whether you are in government or not. Senator Coonan stated:

But when the Senate crosses the line and acts as an obstructional competitor to the democratically elected government of the day, frustrating or substantially delaying urgently required responses to national problems or insisting on its own policy, it is no longer a House of review but a House of obstruction.

This sounds very much like a subjective critique rather than a reasoned opinion. It sounds like the senator is having two bob each way. Or perhaps she is just following orders from the Prime Minister in order to support an unsupportable position. The Prime Minister was very keen to argue when he spoke to his constitutional reform paper in the chamber that this was not about the minor parties and that he did not wish to curb their power in any way, because that would be undemocratic. He said:

The first point I would make is that these proposals do not represent an attack on the powers of the Senate. They do not represent an attempt to remove the fundamental role or the fundamental influence of the Senate within the Australian bicameral system of government, nor are they an attempt to extend the power of the executive. There is nothing in these proposals that represents any attempt to extend the power of the executive, nor do these proposals represent an attack on the minor parties or on the Independents.

This is all very interesting in the context of what Senator Coonan had to say to her friends on Hayman Island back in August—or perhaps the government has got its wires crossed. Senator Coonan stated:

The reforms that have been implemented have only been achieved with the support of minor parties or independents. This provides minor parties, who command only narrow electoral support with the opportunity to exploit the balance of power and to renovate the legislation to better reflect their own policy preferences.

So there you have it—the government's agenda is clear: limit the power of the minor parties and the Independents. And yet Mr Howard, in his speech on this `Resolving deadlocks' discussion paper, said:

We can make partisan comments about this, and no doubt they will be made, but I do think this is important if we are to achieve any sensible change in something—and this is pretty modest. We are not dealing with overturning 100 years of ingrained practice. We are just recognising that, in the modern reality, the public wants to elect small parties and Independents into the Senate and we must respect that wish. I think the worst thing would be for the major parties to gang up and try to change the system to squeeze out the small parties. That would draw very deep resentment in the Australian community.

I totally agree; any attempt to minimise the influence of the minor parties and the Independents would draw a deep resentment from the Australian community.

Based on his own comments, we hear that the Prime Minister is deeply committed to preserving democracy and the wishes of the people. But actions speak louder than words, and the Prime Minister's actions in presenting this discussion paper suggest just the opposite. Realistically, I wonder what real power minor parties and opposition parties will have if the government can request the Governor-General to hold a joint sitting whenever there is a gridlock. As the Prime Minister has said:

Let us be realistic about these things. You need realism when it comes to constitutional reform. That is the most important ingredient of all.

We all know that politics is ultimately about numbers. If the opposition parties cannot effect a vote, they will not get a say. The government is being either grossly naive or grossly manipulative in suggesting that their presence will matter under its proposed Senate reforms. I would say it is more likely to be the latter. Opposition, Independents, minor parties: it would not matter under these proposed reforms.

What this proposal is really about is curbing the power of the Senate and ensuring that the government has no opposition in implementing its current reforms that it cannot presently get through the Senate. The government is hedging its bets. The government thinks it has a good chance of winning the next election and wants a mechanism whereby it can get all its legislation through anyway, even if it does have a hostile Senate. This is another example of the government's predictable, short-sighted political manipulation for its own political ends.

In summary, over time it is crucial that our parliamentary system be allowed to evolve and not be undermined as the current government is attempting to do via these possible amendments to section 57 of the Australian Constitution. The Australian Greens will campaign strongly against the government's Senate reform proposals and we encourage the opposition to do so as well. In closing, I would just like to reiterate a comment I received from one of my constituents while discussing this `Resolving deadlocks' issue and plans to weaken the power of the Senate. As he said to me, `If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'