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Senator believes the power of minor parties and Independents should be curtailed in the Senate.



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This transcript is taken from a tape recording, and freedom from errors, omissions or

misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.

 

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Given the Democrats' role in the GST and other key government legislation, Liberal Senator Helen Coonan has begun campaigning to reform the Senate. Senator Coonan says the power of the minor parties and Independents must be curtailed, and she's proposing a formal threshold so senators would have to win a full quota of primary votes with the threshold set high enough to ensure the government of the day can gain a majority in the Senate. Senator Coonan has been telling Alexandra Kirk the existing system guarantees minority groups will hold the balance of power.

 

HELEN COONAN: What is wrong with it is that the minor parties who are elected are usually not elected in their own right. They're only elected on a very, very narrow segment of the vote and they then proceed - because of the way in which the numbers exist in the Senate and, to be fair, because the opposition of the day opposes a government initiative - but they then proceed, in effect, to be handed a casting vote. That, to my mind, seems a profoundly undemocratic result when you have, in effect, matters of national importance being decided by candidates who have only secured a very narrow segment of voter support.

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Isn't this a tad hypocritical? We didn't hear anything about this from the coalition when it was in opposition and the Labor Government was talking about reforming the Senate, did we? In fact, the coalition did everything possible to obstruct Labor's agenda, so why should they be charitable to you now?

 

HELEN COONAN: Because it's in the long-term interest. I think that's a very fair comment, if I may say so. It affects both sides of - it really affects the major parties on both sides of politics. And what I'm really proposing is that there be a carefully thought out arrangement to ensure that there's at least a prospect of the government of the day - of whichever complexion - having a majority so that in effect, from time to time in this country, you can actually have a reformist government.

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But it's really just about the government of the day wanting unfettered power to implement its agenda.

 

HELEN COONAN: You're assuming, I think, or implicit in that question, if I may so, is an assumption that the government of the day doesn't have a mandate or hasn't put its policy to the people to be able to implement this, and so what it really effectively faces - this is the government of the day - effectively faces a minority government in the Senate. This was certainly not what the founding fathers intended and it's certainly not what responsible government is all about.

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But don't you credit Australians with knowing full well when they vote they in fact have two votes - one for the House of Representatives and a second one for the Senate - and large numbers of people knowingly vote differently in the two houses.

 

HELEN COONAN: Once again, that assumes that people who vote differently in the two houses all vote for exactly the same thing. Exit polls, for instance, show that Democrat voters don't all vote because of the Democrats' policy. Some vote because they like their general social attitude; some vote because what they say about the GST they like or about food. You really can't attribute a block vote as to why anyone votes the way they do.

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But what about those Australians who want a brake on the government of the day? They might in general support a lot of the policies of the government but they want a brake on some of those more radical policies.

 

HELEN COONAN: That's what the Senate does and that's fine. The Senate is there to make sure that there's nothing inherently wrong with policy - in other words, that people's individual rights aren't going to be affected. It's there to knock the rough edges off legislation; it's there to examine legislation. The Senate does a very good job of doing that ….

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But if the government under your policy was able to get a majority in both houses which is obviously the ultimate aim, you're not necessarily going to have that brake. You're going to have the government of the day voting as a block. You don't have many people who are willing to cross the floor, for example, on these issues.

 

HELEN COONAN: Under these proposals you would very rarely get a government majority but occasionally you would, and that's a proposal to even up the balance. Because at the moment you will never ever, again - the way our voting system exists - you will never ever, again, have the prospect of the government controlling the Senate.

 

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Liberal Senator Helen Coonan speaking to our political reporter Alexandra Kirk in Canberra.