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Senator argues for an overhaul of the Senate.

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PETER THOMPSON: Senator Helen Coonan, a senior Liberal Party backbencher, will deliver a major speech in Sydney tonight arguing for an overhaul of the Senate. As we know, criticism by governments about the way the Senate conducts itself isn’t new. Paul Keating, I suppose, will always be remembered for his description of senators as unrepresentative swill. Usually such heated remarks bob up when a government is struggling to get key legislation through the upper house, and the timing of Senator Coonan’s speech is no exception. Earlier this week, the Treasurer Peter Costello warned the opposition parties in the Senate against obstructing the Federal Government’s tax plans. So the coalition’s acting as if its back’s up against the wall. Senator Helen Coonan joins us now to discuss her plans for the Senate, and she’s talking to Fran Kelly.


FRAN KELLY: Helen Coonan, on the one hand in your paper - which is a very detailed paper - you say the Senate’s role is to scrutinise and criticise. On the other hand, you say this current Senate is being an obstructive competitor to the government. It’s a fine line between scrutiny and criticism and obstruction, isn’t it?


HELEN COONAN: I think it’s a fine line, Fran, but I think you can tell the difference when you see opposition to the government, either minor parties or in fact the major party in opposition, actually trying to hijack government policy. It’s a difference in substance and, in fact, scrutinising and criticising is fine. That’s exactly what the Senate is there to do. It has a review role. The difference is when it tries to be a policy partner with government and actually tries to implement its own policy preferences.


FRAN KELLY: But in the end, in the reality so far of the Howard government’s experience, it’s got most of its legislation through the Senate, admittedly, after some pretty rigorous scrutiny and criticism but it is passed in the end. Isn’t that the Senate performing its duty?


HELEN COONAN: I think you also have to look at the extent to which obstructing the government also delays the proper implementation of policies that have been taken to elections. Because basically people elect governments to govern; they elect governments to implement the sorts of policies that have been taken to an election; and certainly the public out there, I think, doesn’t expect that there will be something like 80 hours of debate over some policy when the government has clearly enunciated that policy at the time of the election.


FRAN KELLY: You talk about delays. Doesn’t the process of scrutiny take time? I mean, look at the current process. We’ve got Senate committees examining the tax package. The government resisted that; they tagged it a waste of time, a waste of taxpayers’ money; but how do you scrutinise if you’re not allowed to run Senate committees?


HELEN COONAN: Just look at the Senate committee process that’s running at the minute. There are four committees running at once. Whatever evidence is presented to this committee, it will divide along party lines, and so the casting vote - as always when the minor parties hold power - will be up to either Senator Harradine, Senator Colston or, indeed, the Democrats. So you have a process there where if the public could be confident that at the end of this long and very expensive process there would be a fair GST, a tax policy that would actually deliver tax benefits, tax savings to the public, would actually allow a properly thought out social security program, obviously the Senate’s doing its job. But if it frustrates and if it tries to actually implement a different policy; if in other words it tries to dismantle a major component of a fundamental policy that’s been taken to an election, I think that’s getting very close to obstruction, and that’s not what the Senate’s there to do.


FRAN KELLY: But Senator, for this process of the Senate committees and the GST, we’ve already seen some new information come out of it. Don’t you think the public would want the government of the day to consider new information that had not been reviewed or thought about before and take that into account when looking and maybe changing slightly or amending its tax plan?


HELEN COONAN: I’m sorry Fran, I just didn’t hear that.


FRAN KELLY: Don’t you think that the public will expect that we’ve got new information already out the Senate committee, wouldn’t the public want the government of the day to take on any new information that’s come to light and amend its tax package to take that into account?


HELEN COONAN: If that was what was being intended, I think you’re absolutely correct, but the sorts of attitude that’s coming out of this Senate process and the Senate committee is not proper scrutiny. They’ve said they won’t pass it no matter what. The Labor Party has said irrespective of what comes to light, it ….


FRAN KELLY: But the government’s also said it won’t change its tax package no matter what.


HELEN COONAN: The government has said that it is prepared to look at the compensation package - at least that’s my understanding of what the government has said it will do - but certainly not to alter the fundamental tenets of what has been a properly thought out proposal. So ….


FRAN KELLY: Before we run out of time, I’d like to get you to talk about the change to the voting system in the Senate you’re proposing.




FRAN KELLY: You talk about maybe introducing a threshold number of primary votes that a candidate would have to get before they could be considered for election. How would you set that threshold and how would this affect, say, the make-up of the current Senate?


HELEN COONAN: A threshold is really a minimum condition that will allow a senator to participate in a process such as the distribution of preferences. As you would know, senators are elected on a quota and minor party senators who get a very small primary vote - that is, they only have a very small spectrum of electoral support - have to rely on major party preferences. What the threshold would do would be to have a level at which every candidate that’s actually going to get elected to the Senate will actually prove that they’ve got a certain level of electoral support before they go on to the next process ….


FRAN KELLY: And where would you set that level, that threshold?


HELEN COONAN: I do think it’s appropriate that that be debated. Certainly, if you look at other countries that have this threshold - in fact, most Western democracies that have proportional representation have got some sort of threshold to stop splinter parties and parties with only a small amount of support - so I think you have to think about the sort of level. Recently in the United Kingdom, the Jenkins Commission voted that their informal level of threshold would have been 10.9 per cent that would have qualified anyone for a top-up seat under their new proposal.


FRAN KELLY: As I say, it’s a very detailed speech you’re giving tonight; you’ve put a lot of work into it. Have you discussed your views with the coalition leadership and do they support and encourage this view?


HELEN COONAN: I’ve not discussed it in detail, no. What my proposal is, is that we have a debate about this. I’m not saying that either minor parties should be eliminated from the Senate, far from it. I’m trying to put the minor party representation into the Senate into proper context so that they don’t have a casting vote on matters of national importance. And my whole aim in doing this is to, instead of being accused of short termism just looking to the next election, as a Senator you have an opportunity to stand back and to put forward, hopefully, carefully thought out proposals for public scrutiny.


FRAN KELLY: Senator Helen Coonan, thanks for your time.


HELEN COONAN: Thank you, Fran.


PETER THOMPSON: Liberal Senator Helen Coonan from New South Wales, talking there to Fran.