12 October 2003

Nats, branded anew, try to defy the odds

Take for instance, the Prime Minister's ambitious proposal to blunt the teeth of the Senate. This does not particularly appeal to some Nationals. Federal director Andrew Hall flagged this as soon as the government paper containing options was released last week.

Yesterday's conference revealed deep division within the party about the move to cut back Senate power. The conference considered a motion from Queensland that, while accepting the Government's 'justified frustration' over rejected legislation, also acknowledged 'the historic role of the Senate in protecting Australia from the excesses of irresponsible governments, in particular the Whitlam government'. The motion opposed 'any reduction in the powers of the Senate to reject legislation'.

But this went down to an amendment, strongly backed by Anderson, that supported the need for reform to remove impasses between the houses.

During the debate, Anderson appealed to the party not to cut itself out of the issue by being too prescriptive immediately. 'We must be fully involved in a red-blooded way in this debate,' he said. Anderson recognised that people used their Senate votes carefully to have the upper house as a check and balance, but he said the other side of the equation was that people voted for a government in the lower house, and it was an issue when the government's platform was continually obstructed.

Two messages out of yesterday's debate on the Senate: this is an issue that will be quite difficult within the rank and file of the National party, especially in Queensland; and it is not going to be one on which Anderson will seek to differentiate his party. He could be forgiven for hoping that the Government will have to soon drop it for lack of bipartisan support.

In its way, the National Party has given us a very good argument to vote against the Howard Senate proposal. If the National party's historic commitment to the Senate can be reversed overnight because the Liberal party wants to, then that just proves that how dominant is the executive and how badly we need the current powers of the Senate to continue.

Tradeoffs are possible, like ending the Senate's power to block supply, but we are seeing no sign of such tradeoffs. All we're really seeing from the Howard government is a very loud: 'Gimme'.

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