Double Dissolution: Why Turnbull Was Right To Confront The Senate

NOTWITHSTANDING signals from some polls — and some pundits, including myself — of a tight election that may yet see Labor triumph, an issue that will receive scant attention in this campaign is the role of the Senate, and the bluntly pro-Left battering ram it has become. The present Senate is not “democratic.” Electoral laws that allow its abuse by the Left have been axed. Win or lose, Mr Turnbull has rightly bleached a stain on Australian democracy.

There is a scenario doing the rounds in the mainstream commentariat this week — not without reason, I might add — that having invested so heavily in engineering a double dissolution and having so emphatically framed it as a battle to eradicate lawlessness in the construction industry, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could win a narrow majority in the House of Representatives that is insufficient to overhaul its minority in the Senate, making it impossible to muster the numbers to pass bills at a Joint Sitting of Parliament: rendering the disputed bills, and the entire pretext for a double dissolution, redundant.

It would amount to a humiliation that, were this nightmare scenario to materialise, would justify (if not demand) Turnbull’s resignation.

Yet the truth is that most voters — generally uninterested in politics and often resentful at being forced to pay it any attention at all — won’t even consider the context of a double dissolution election even this closely, let alone delve deeper into the issues that have led to Parliament mostly being an unproductive quagmire for the past three years.

I have been reading an article by Paul Kelly in The Australian this morning, and given we’re embarking on an election campaign of unprecedented duration, I thought it might be an opportunity to revisit the fraught issue of the Senate; the double dissolution itself is only half the story, for this election will take place under amended electoral laws that dispense with group ticket voting (GTV) that relies on preference deals determined in advance by parties and independent candidates, and allows for the first time voters to optionally allocate their own preferences to control where their votes are ultimately directed.

Back in the early 1990s, I was a very hotheaded member of the (sizeable) contingent who found it outrageous that then-PM Paul Keating should dare to describe the Senate as “unrepresentative swill;” of course, the subsequent years have shown Keating was absolutely correct, and the chief role of the Senate seems to have evolved over the ensuing 20-odd years to amount to little more today than a battering ram to bludgeon and seek to destroy a conservative government by making it impossible for it to govern.

Before any of our friends on the Left who read my stuff start protesting, I should restate my long-held belief that a government elected to power with a majority in the lower house should generally be entitled, in ordinary circumstances, to be able to govern for three years at a time and to secure the passage of its legislation; there is no codified status as a “house of review” ascribed to the Senate in the Constitution, for the true role of the upper house — long since usurped by the two-party system — is as a States’ House.

It goes without saying, of course, that no political party will ever legislate to force the Senate to act purely on the basis of state interests, for to do so would be to necessarily remove the presence of political parties from the Senate altogether. It ain’t going to happen, and so the next best thing is to ensure that without creating an automatic rubber stamp, the composition of the Senate broadly reflects the wishes of the Australian public as expressed by their preference for a government at the ballot box.

In this sense, it should also be noted that there is no right to seats in Parliament for micro-parties, Independents or selected minorities embedded in the Constitution either: and those who wheel this fatuous argument out to decry “authoritarian” Senate reforms that “diminish diversity” need to get a handle on both themselves and the fact that elections are chiefly concerned with choosing governments — not with the execution of left-wing social policy.

That comes later, if indeed it must.

Kelly tells the story today (that we have sporadically touched upon here) of the bills to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission: taken to the people as a promise by the Tony Abbott-led Liberals in 2013, the Coalition’s mandate on this issue was flatly ignored by a Senate bent on trying to destroy the government as much as with safeguarding the unregulated environment in which unions presently operate.

He tells the story of the Heydon Royal Commission into the union movement — another promise taken to the electorate in 2013 by Abbott — and the reprehensible lengths the Senate, stewarded by Labor’s Penny Wong and abetted by the Greens and a large contingent of the crossbench, went to in trying to have the Inquiry shut down and/or Heydon’s position terminated: including the improper and undemocratic attempt to politicise the office of the Governor-General in seeking to have Sir Peter intervene in a breach of both protocol and convention.

The attempt also shattered forever Labor’s long-held position that the Governor-General “takes advice from his Prime Minister and from no-one else” — invalidating, at a stroke, 40 years of bitching and complaining about the legal and perfectly proper actions of Sir John Kerr in dismissing the Whitlam government over a parliamentary deadlock in 1975.

He makes the point, implicitly, that Labor’s actions betray its utter enslavement to the agenda and interests of the union movement, be they democratic or otherwise: I don’t think it’s an unreasonable inference to suggest that even if allegations of heinous crimes such as rapes and murders and the like had emerged from the Heydon Commission (which they didn’t, just to be clear) then the ALP would still have acted as an apologist hand puppet for its union masters and assisted their endeavours to evade enforcement of the law.

And he correctly asserts that the antics of the Senate over the past three years — blocking, for example (and this is an old story) virtually every Coalition measure to rein in expenditure whilst allowing anything that increased spending to pass, in a brazen enterprise to perpetuate the vandalism and sabotage Labor deliberately wrought on the federal budget once it knew it was returning to opposition — belie a realignment of power between the Senate and the House of Representatives, with the former strengthened in relative terms against the upper.

The structure of the Senate and the system used to elect it, as regular readers well know, has long been a particular bugbear of mine; we have discussed these matters often over the past five years, and newer readers can peruse a small selection of historic material here, here and here: some of which touches directly on the matters at hand this morning.

The great villain in the piece — and which has enabled the Senate to evolve into the shameful stain on Australian democracy that its current incarnation represents — was the suite of reforms introduced by the Hawke government in 1984 (with the foolish support of the National Party guaranteeing their passage) which enlarged both Houses of Parliament, introduced the now-familiar options for voting above or below the line, and which established the GTV scourge that has in recent years spawned the phenomenon of “preference harvesting” or “preference whispering” and ultimately led to the cesspool the upper house is today.

To be fair, the House of Representatives needed to be enlarged in 1984, having remained relatively unchanged in size for almost 40 years whilst the Australian population exploded, and it needs to be enlarged again now; after the 1984 charges, a lower house MP was responsible for the service of roughly 60,000 electors; today, thanks to population growth, each MP is responsible to almost double that number. The 125-seat House that grew to 150 in 1984 should really now be expanded to 180 seats. In 20 or 30 years’ time, it will need to be enlarged again.

But the Constitution (and specifically, S24 of it) mandates that “as nearly as practicable” the House of Representatives should be composed of double the number of Senators — the so-called “constitutional nexus” — which means that to enlarge the lower house is to also enlarge to upper, cutting the required quota of votes under the proportional system used to win election to the Senate, and perpetuating the dysfunction that has marked the upper house for too long in recent times.

A kind view says that the 1984 changes could retrospectively be seen as having had the unintended effect of creating the mess the Senate has become.

But Labor — whose fury over what happened in 1975 has dimmed, but will never really diminish — was hellbent on seeing to it that such a fate could never again befall a government it formed, and I have always believed the splintering effect upon the ability of major parties to win Senate majorities that has flowed from those changes was deliberate.

Yes, the Howard government won a Senate majority for its last term in office; this was an anomaly, not a readily replicated precedent.

But for the past 40 years, the splinter parties that have emerged in Australian politics have mostly sprung up on the Left — the Greens especially — and by lowering the bar to parliamentary entry, the likelihood was always that unless the Coalition could corral close to 50% of the upper house primary vote at consecutive elections it could never achieve a majority there, whilst the proliferation of new left-leaning entrants to the Senate offered the ALP the eventual prospect of control of the Senate (in partnership with some of these minor entities) whether it held office or not.

And that is precisely where the Senate result in 2013 — added to the Senate results in the states from 2010 — sees us today.

The long and the short of all of this — until Turnbull’s legislation to overhaul Senate elections was passed — is that the upper house has morphed into an institution likely to deliver effective control of the Senate (with the Greens) to any Labor government formed in the lower house, whilst providing the muscle to block anything introduced by a government formed by the conservative parties.

This power has been repeatedly abused over the past three years, although the tactical and strategic ineptitude of the Abbott government’s “brains” trust meant that it was never exploited and turned to the Coalition’s advantage: instead, every defeat inflicted on the government simply emboldened the Senate, rather than spurring the Coalition to a public discussion of the role of the Senate to turn opinion in its favour, quickly engineering a pile of double dissolution triggers to give itself recourse against the upper house, and setting the crossbench up for an electoral mauling when it next faced voters.

You can’t say the government has demolished the standing of the crossbench even now: still behaving as laws unto themselves and spared any meaningful scrutiny in a huge portion of the media, most of its members are openly campaigning for the protection of their well-remunerated sinecures with a near-total disregard for the national interest.

And in my view, the only surprise to emanate from the Senate since the ALP lost power three years ago is that it didn’t try to force an election by blocking one of the Abbott government’s budgets. It astounds me that no attempt was made to do so. But it is the only mechanism for attempting to destroy an elected government through sheer bloody-mindedness that it hasn’t tried.

At the very minimum, the nexus of S24 must be broken, so the House can be enlarged without the need to bloat the Senate any further: the change will require a referendum, and it will require wiser heads than presently reside in Canberra to make the public case for it. In any case, the promise to freeze the size of the Senate at 76 members (or to cut it back to the 64 that applied before 1984) would go a long way to winning public favour. Australians don’t like politicians. Promising to limit increases in the number of them, or even to cut the number of them, are likely to be well received.

It is a great shame that so few will give a second thought to these issues, as Australia’s date with the polling stations on 2 July approaches; paradoxically, the voting public that may yet react against the Coalition over perceptions of chaos, the inability to pass its legislation and the sense the government “owns” the embarrassment the Senate has been will probably give little or no consideration to the fact Turnbull has had the bottle to finally push through changes that should sound the death knell for the kind of shenanigans the Senate has chosen to engage in.

But the bigger issue is what we actually elect MPs for: it might be legal to stonewall, to defeat, and to seek to destroy a government by rendering the Senate so uncontrollable as to sabotage that government, but it isn’t right.

Yes, Lefties, I know what you’re going to say; how can I suggest such a thing when I’m an ardent supporter of what happened in 1975? But two wrongs do not make a right, and in any case there was a real crisis of governance in the latter stages of the Whitlam government: the country was in chaos, and the Whitlam government had descended into little more than an unending string of ministerial scandals. Labor’s (and the Greens’) beef with the Abbott government boiled down to no more than a dislike of his government’s agenda. They were entitled to take such a view, of course. But their charge against Abbott paled in comparison to the track record of Whitlam and his cohorts.

Either way, events some 40 years ago do not justify the Senate being turned into a blatant battering ram or blunt object for the exclusive political benefit of the ALP and the Greens.

Nobody owns the Senate, although for the past six years, it has been held in an iron grasp by the forces of the Left: and their number — aided by left-leaning micro-parties and Independents, whose election was only possible due to a self-interested fix by the ALP 30 years ago — has grown to the point that it had become virtually impossible to remove the Left’s control of the chamber at an election once the preference games that GTV made possible had been initiated.

And it should be noted that Turnbull — even in an (unlikely) thumping victory in July — stands little chance of winning a Senate majority. That isn’t the point.

With a quota for a Senate place now much more likely to amount to exactly that in practice — and to hell with “diversity” arguments to justify Senators winning spots with half a percentage point of the vote — the result of the coming election will more closely (but of course, not precisely) reflect the broad wishes of a majority of the electorate, and that is just how it should be.

Whether you plan to vote Liberal, Labor or for someone else — and irrespective of what you think of Malcolm Turnbull personally — he deserves credit for the changes that have been legislated, and the contribution to improving outcomes of governance in this country that will flow from them will be an enduring one.



One thought on “Double Dissolution: Why Turnbull Was Right To Confront The Senate

  1. I hope this is only the first step in a multi step plan to get the voting system we really need in both houses incrementally, because it can never be engineered in one step as it should be possible to do. Carn first past the post so we get government for the majority instead of selling out the majority interest in cobbling together every conceivable minority interest to win at all costs.

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