13 October 2003

Brian Harradine | Wrong way to reform the Senate

I propose a system which would have fixed three-year terms for the House of Representatives, with half-Senate elections every election.

A government could hold a joint sitting after a fixed-term election to vote on legislation which had (1) originally been detailed in the government's election manifesto, (2) subsequently been introduced to parliament within the first year of the government's three-year term, (3) been rejected twice under the present requirements for a double dissolution trigger, and (4) been put to the people again at the next election.

My proposal has a number of advantages.

It extends the average length of time between elections. Over my 28 years in the Senate there have been elections approximately every 2 1/2 years. A guaranteed three-year term would give governments more time to implement their program, yet continue to allow senators to be elected for six-year terms. It would also remove some of the uncertainty surrounding the timing of elections.

It also introduces a measure of stability by having senators who are not too closely focused on the short-term imperatives of their re-election. It allows a broader perspective on issues in the house of review, rather than a focus on the more immediate parliamentary cycle.

The focus of most comment in the lead-up to the discussion paper has been on the Senate as a problem. But the real problem is that the present system does not provide a predictable system for resolving deadlocks. Deadlocks are a problem caused not by the Senate itself, but by irreconcilable differences between the House of Representatives and the Senate, and more particularly between the major political parties.

Finally, the one point no-one has mentioned before about Senate reform. The Senate crossbench has absolutely no say about any bill on which the government and the opposition agree. It follows that the Howard proposal is not about the powers of the Senate but about the powers of the Opposition. Howard's proposals also increase the prime ministerial temptation to call early elections and get a free shot at passing deadlocked bills without consultation or compromise.

If the present Senate had been 'depowered' (Ron Boswell's term, not mine) a number of very bad laws would have passed unamended.

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