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Australian Democrats proposal for Parliamentary reform.



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AUSTRALIAN DEMOCRATS’ PROPOSAL FOR PARLIAMENTARY REFORM October 2003

John Howard’s proposition:

The Senate should submit to the Government’s agenda and I want it changed so that it is forced to submit.

The Democrats’ proposition:

The Senate works well and as intended in the Constitution but we can always make the Parliament work even better.

Our proposed reforms are:

1. A binding plebiscite on disputed legislation to give power back to the people, introduction of four-year fixed terms and requiring Parliamentary approval for going to war and adopting Treaties;

2. Constitutional reform to eliminate the Senate’s ability to block supply of the ordinary services of government;

3. Reforms to the House of Representatives to inject mechanisms of accountability in procedure;

4. Broader reforms to improve the regulation of political parties and to stamp out donations that have strings attached;

5. Improving the accountability of Ministers and staffers to combat government secrecy and abuse of power; and

6. Removing outdated components in the Constitution that prevent public servants and dual citizens from nominating for election to Parliament.

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IMPROVING DEMOCRACY AND MAKING THE PARLIAMENT FUNCTION BETTER

Binding plebiscite on disputed legislation

If the Government wants to argue it has the support of the people to implement major reforms, it should be prepared to prove it.

Any legislation that is the subject of a protracted dispute between the Senate and the House of Representatives would have to be put to the Australian people for a yes/no vote at a general election.

The Democrats are willing to back moves to give less power to the Parliament only as long as that power goes to the people.

This is in line with the Democrats’ Constitutional Reform policy, which states:

“In accordance with the principle of popular sovereignty, Australians should strive for a more open and direct democracy ensuring that the people are the rulers and not the ruled. We support enhancing public participation in the political system by way of establishing regular elections, and referenda and plebiscites.”

Depending on how it is structured, this proposal would not necessarily require Constitutional change.

Fixed terms

Ensuring that general elections are held on a specific date. This can be introduced by legislation and will result in longer terms, and would ensure greater continuity and stability of government.

Four year terms

Parliamentary terms should be four years for the House of Representatives and eight years for the Senate.

This would require Constitutional change but would ensure that governments have a reasonable time to execute their policy agenda. (This proposal is already contained in a Democrats’ Bill that has been introduced in the Senate).

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Treaty ratification: Parliament to approve Treaties via joint sitting

The Democrats have long advocated the desirability of Parliament being required to approve any international Treaties which Australia is entering into, as occurs in the USA. With the growing number of international Treaties being entered into, proper Parliamentary oversight is more crucial than ever.

Parliamentary approval required to commit Australia to war

The Democrats first proposed in 1981 that the Australian Parliament's consent be needed to commit troops to overseas conflict (as in the USA), through seeking to move amendments to the Defence Act.

We have consistently advocated our position through the introduction of Private Senators’ Bills.

We believe that this ultimate exercise of power should not rest solely in the hands of the Prime Minister.

REFINING THE SENATE’S POWERS It is worth noting that since the Democrats have held or shared the balance of power in the Senate in 1981, the Senate has rejected less than 3% of legislation. This compares to a rejection rate of up to 27% when the Coalition controlled the Senate in 1975.

Eliminating power of the Senate to block supply for the ordinary services of government

One of the founding principles of the Democrats in 1977 was that we would not block supply for the ordinary services of government. We would not do what the Liberal Party did in 1975 and that is to hold the government to ransom.

The Democrats’ commitment to ensuring the Senate acts constructively and responsibly is one of the reasons we are the only Party that consistently polls much higher in the Senate than in the House of Representatives.

Sending petitions to Senate Committees

The role of Committees is to investigate and to draw attention to what they find. Sending petitions to Committee provide opportunities for organisations and individuals to make their views known to Parliament and require those views to be given consideration.

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Have more sitting days

The past two years (2002 - 60 days) and 2003 (62 originally scheduled, now reduced to 60) are the shortest sitting years (non-election) since the mid-70s. And some election years have managed more than 60 sittings days, with other election years even managing 57 and 59 days.

The lack of sitting days means that the Senate has less time to adequately perform its tasks and functions. It also shows the Government is not serious about getting legislation dealt with, despite repeatedly claiming that legislation is being ‘held up’ in the Senate.

The Government determines what legislation comes up for debate and often it refuses to bring on important Bills for debate in the Senate. The Democrats have continually and unsuccessfully asked for more sitting time (including moving a motion to do so).

Despite this lack of time, the Senate continues to deal with an enormous amount of legislation. The Senate in 2003 dealt with 103 Bills in the first 40 sitting days.

Guaranteed Senate time for Private Senators’ Bills, for instance, one whole sitting day a fortnight for Private Senators’ Bills

Private Senators’ Bills are rarely passed in Parliament as there is little time for them to be debated and the government regularly prevents them from being voted on by stacking the speaking list. Only 8 Private Senators’ Bills have passed the Parliament in 102 years.

There are currently 43 Private Senators’ Bills tabled in the Senate, of which 29 are Democrats’ Bills.

Enshrine statewide proportional representation for the Senate in the Constitution

The proportional representation system of voting is a key reason why the Senate is able to be an effective House of review. Enshrining this in the Constitution protects the Senate from possible future attacks by larger Parties.

IMPROVING THE REPRESENTATIVE NATURE OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Proportional representation in the House of Representatives

This can be achieved via the introduction of full proportional representation or a partial proportional representation system. The latter would be achieved by the current election system being supplemented by a top up to ensure full representation reflecting the votes of the people.

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The House of Representatives does not accurately reflect the will of the voting public.

57% of voters do not give their primary vote to the Government in the House of Representatives. Conversely and disproportionately however, it holds 55% of the House of Representatives seats.

The Senate however is a representative chamber, where the majority rule, not a minority.

Reforms to question time in the House of Representatives to mirror that of the Senate format, which imposes time limits on answers to questions.

This eliminates some of the Parliamentary pantomime that poses as question time in the House of Representatives.

BROADER REFORMS TO IMPROVE PARLIAMENTARY REPRESENTATION/PERFORMANCE

Political Donations rules and disclosure

It is essential that Australia has a comprehensive regulatory system that legally requires the publication of explicit details of the true sources of donations to political Parties and the destinations of their expenditure.

In particular it is vital that there is a general anti-avoidance provision that prohibits donations that have ‘strings attached’. Such an amendment would address the nexus between money, politics and improper influence or corruption.

One step forward in keeping elections affordable and minimising donor influence is to set a ceiling on the maximum donation that can be made.

Political Governance

Requiring much better standards for political Parties should have the effect of improving the quality and processes of representation.

It would offer political Parties better protection from internal malpractice and corruption, and it would reduce the opportunity for the use of public funds for improper purpose.

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ACCOUNTABILITY OF MINISTERS AND STAFFERS Ensuring House of Representatives Ministers and Ministerial staffers appear before Committees when requested including Senate Estimates Committees

The deliberate efforts by the Government to avoid scrutiny was highlighted in the Children Overboard Inquiry, when Ministerial staff and former Ministers refused to attend Inquiry hearings or answer questions. With growing power for Ministerial advisers and a more politicised public service, greater accountability is crucial.

Improving compliance on Returns to Order

In this Parliament (Feb 2002 to cob 18 Sept 2003) there have been 56 orders for the production of documents. Of which: x�27 were complied with x�5 were partially complied with x�17 were not complied with x�7 are pending

The refusal of the Coalition Government to provide documents prevents the Senate and the public from effectively examining important information. The growing tendency of the current Government for secrecy needs to be addressed.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS TO REMOVE UNFAIR IMPEDIMENTS FOR AUSTRALIANS TO NOMINATE FOR PARLIAMENT

The Constitution prevents public servants and dual citizens from being able to nominate for Parliament.

This prohibition is outdated and should be removed, with Parliament being given the power to enact any restrictions it believes are appropriate. A Democrats’ Bill to enable this Constitutional reform has been tabled in the Senate.

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