9 October 2003

Honest John and the Chamber of Horrors

On 8 October 2003 the Prime Minister released 'Resolving deadlocks: a discussion paper on section 57 of the Australian Constitution'. This paper considers additional options for resolution of deadlocks between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Section 57 currently provides for deadlocks between the House of Representatives and the Senate to be resolved by a double dissolution election.

The first option canvassed by the discussion paper would allow the Governor General to convene a joint sitting of both houses to consider a deadlocked bill, without the need for an election. The second option would allow the Governor General to convene a joint sitting of both houses after an ordinary general election.

The discussion paper is fairly light reading. Its case is persuasive only if you accept that the national interest and government policy are always the same thing. If you accept that governments are occasionally wrong then you probably want the Senate to have a second look at government bills.

Option 1 would simply abolish the power of the Senate while keeping the appearance of a second chamber. An upper house without power to stop government bills is pointless and a better approach would to honestly and openly advocate abolition of the Senate.

Option2 is more interesting but ultimately would just generate more and more elections. The effective term of the House is already shorter than 3 years:

Since 1901 the average elapsed time between elections has been 30.7 months, though if the six double dissolution elections are not counted, this figure climbs to 32.5 months.

If we look at specific periods over the years, we note that there has been a marked reduction in term length during the past 25 years. The average for all elections during this time is only 28.5 months, though the holding of four double dissolution elections no doubt distorts the figures. Even with these four elections removed from the figures, the average parliament (ignoring the current parliament) has lasted barely 31 months (see Table 4).

Under Option 2 the prime minister gets a chance to pass all government bills rejected by the previous Senate. The effect is that the prime minister has a heavy temptation to call extra general elections because, after every such election, the deadlocked bills can be passed in a joint sitting.

The Australian people like divided government:

Of course, the winning threshold for Senate elections (14.3 per cent) is far less than the tentative figure given above for House of Representatives elections. Still, the votes have shifted, and the consequence has been the inability of the major parties to gain a majority in the Senate.(41) The well-publicised consequence has been the increasingly interventionist style of the Senate when performing its review role. An obvious way of dealing with this is to alter the voting method arrangements, but such an approach would simply turn a blind eye to the seepage in major party votes that seemingly reflects long-term changes in voting behaviour.(42)

The discussion paper admits, by implication, that more Australians vote for opposition and minor parties in electing senators than in electing MHRs. It follows that many Australians vote for a major party in the House and for a minor party in the Senate. That's their choice. That choice coud be seen before the increase in the size of the Senate.

Adopting Option 2 would not cure the propensity of the Australian people to elect divided parliaments. It would merely ensure even more frequent elections than now, driven by prime ministerial ambition.

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