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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 11384

Senator HUMPHRIES (3:23 PM) —The Prime Minister placed on the national agenda recently an issue of extreme importance to the way in which Australia's democracy functions. He has asked the Australian community, and the Australian elected representatives in particular, to take part in a debate about the way in which Australian democracy works. Members of this place and other places who might imagine that Australian democracy has evolved to a state where it is perfect, where it is incapable of reform, I believe would be seriously deluding themselves.

Our system of government is a good system of government, but it can be improved. The power of the Senate to block the vital legislation of a duly elected government is a central issue which simply has to be addressed in a process of considering reform. Some jurisdictions in Australia have abolished their upper houses. Some have never had upper houses. Those systems manage to work. We need to ask ourselves what role the Senate should play in a fair, democratic system of government. I believe that the issues that the Prime Minister has placed on the table represent a positive and an appropriate way of being able to take that debate forward.

I have heard senators opposite make reference to the events of 1975. Senator Faulkner, in particular, was quick to condemn the Liberal Party for having `debauched' the democratic process, as he put it, with its use of numbers in the Senate. He said in response that the ALP had never done anything of that kind with respect to the powers of the Senate, citing the events of 1975. Obviously, those events still rankle very much within the ranks of the Labor Party, but it seems to me to be a little short-sighted to make that observation. The fact is that, prior to 1975 and prior to the Whitlam government, the Labor opposition, on numerous occasions, voted against budget bills not only in this place but also in the House of Representatives. They voted again and again against coalition government budget bills. The difference between what happened in those years and 1975 is that the vote of the opposition succeeded in changing the outcome of those bills. It had not done so previously. It seems to me a bit rich for the Labor Party to claim to have `clean hands', as Senator Faulkner put it, when they had so often attempted to do what was done successfully in 1975.

As Senator Lightfoot made clear earlier, this government's agenda has been clear. It has been out in the open. It has been put to the Australian people in clear terms. Many of the bills which have recently been rejected by the Senate are bills which have been a very explicit part of this government's agenda. Legislation to provide for reform of the unfair dismissal laws was a matter tabled in clear terms by the government before the last election. Yet this opposition and this chamber have seen fit to reject those laws, despite what could clearly be said to be a mandate for their passage in this place.

Senator Ferris —At three elections.

Senator HUMPHRIES —As Senator Ferris reminds us, a mandate given not just once, not just twice, but on three separate occasions. Where is the democratic process at work in that? Where is the government's capacity to govern, as it has been elected to do, when the Senate behaves in that way? Quite appropriately, the Prime Minister has said it is time to consider how we can change the system for the better. Senator Hill, in his response to the question today, made it clear to Senator Ray that he is happy to see submissions made by Senator Ray, or others opposite, to the process the Prime Minister has put in train. Let us see that happen. Let us see a positive response from the Labor Party to this exercise. Let them put their money where their mouth is. If they are in favour of some kind of reform, and they have said in the past that they were—who was it that called this place `unrepresentative swill' if not a Labor Prime Minister?—they should stop bleating in this place about the process the government has begun and put together their own proposals and put them forward. That would be a constructive way of dealing with this important debate that has been initiated by the Prime Minister. (Time expired)