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Save Our Senate: Absolute power is bad for the Governments that enjoy it
Last week GetUp held a forum at the former Academy of Science building ((ex)Canberrans will know it as the Igloo). The purpose of the forum was to discuss the role of the Senate. The following report was prepared by Roland Manderson, campaign manager for ACT Greens Senate candidate Kerrie Tucker.
Disclosure: Margo is a member of the ACT Greens and is helping her friend Kerrie in her campaign to unseat the Liberal Senator and thus immediately end the Howard Government's control of the Senate.
The speakers tonight were the Clerk of the Senate Harry Evans, and four Senators, leader of the Greens Senator Bob Brown, Leader of the Democrats Senator Lyn Allison, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Chris Evans, and the National Party's Barnaby Joyce.
GetUp's Brett Solomon was the chair and introduced the discussion with the comment that there were two elections this year: one for the Prime Minister and the other for who would keep an eye on him.
Harry Evans began by observing that there is no great separation of powers between the legislature and the executive any more. And that parliament no longer scrutinises government, conducts independent inquiry, nor legislates on its own terms. He reminded us that in the past Senators were not so tightly bound by their parties, especially in regard to oversight and accountability, and that the vigorous and highly regarded estimates process was devised and developed by Government backbenchers in the 1970s.
He argued in a fairly casual or conversational manner that absolute power is bad for the Governments that enjoy it; and cited Dutch research which found that majoritarian politics deliver worse health, social and economic outcomes than do governments that need to negotiate their policies.
Bob Brown began by reflecting that the last time he was in that extraordinary building was for a protest meeting to save the Franklin River. He advised us that the Greens would campaign that the Senate needs to be the backstop for the people. He described the eventual consequence of majority government as power being vested in just one person, and bemoaned the loss of Committee inquiry and scrutiny, so evident this week with the Northern Territory intervention being pushed through.
Bob then pointed out that the two Senators for each territory take their place as soon as they are elected, and that if the Greens' Kerrie Tucker replaced Gary Humphries in the ACT, the Coalition would lose its dominance of the Senate immediately.
Barnaby Joyce took the line that the Senate ought to reflect individual conscience and responsibility. And that it was failing as a house of review because of the increasingly strong grip of the parties on debate. He highlighted the fact that he had voted against his party on occasion, but that Labor always voted as a block – even though many of them clearly disagreed with some of the terrorism and indigenous affairs legislation that Labor has been supporting. And that the Greens and the Democrats were not much different.
He argued it was up to the parties, and the individuals within them, to change the culture of politics in the Senate, and that they would be held to account when they faced the electorate for their actions (which is every six years for Senators from the states.)
Lyn Allison claimed the RU 486 debate restored people's faith in parliament because it was a conscience vote in both houses. What we valued in the Senate, she said, was that it was representative and independent. It should have control of its own rules, timeframes, and budgets. Instead, it is the Minister who decides if the Senate will have an inquiry, which are therefore tame, and that – given Prime Ministerial control – frank and fearless advice is now a thing of the past.
Opposition being Government in waiting, in Senator Allison's view it is the minor parties that can hold government to account. And that splitting inside parties, and the trouble that comes with working with government, is all a part of the hurley burley of politics.
Chris Evans then spoke about the tyranny of the majority, and that this election not just about the lower house (all the attention on Labor notwithstanding), but about the Senate as well. He spoke about how the Senate developed from around 1980 to 2005, as a check and a balance. That that no one party until now has had a majority; that the tone of the place was more intellectual and ideas based than it is now.
He suggested that the Senate saved governments from themselves, and provided an important scope for community input. He pushed the point that the Senate is a home for political parties, but that at least there is a range of them. He said that Labor could not gain control of the Senate at this election, but that to avoid a tyrannical Coalition Government, or a new Labor Government blocked by a hostile Senate, at least two extra non-coalition Senators need to be elected.
The formal part of the meeting ended with Brett Solomon reminding the audience that GetUp's internet petition of 100,000 and a lot of community on the Senators rebelled and the proposal to process all asylum seekers off shore was abandoned.
Question time was interesting.
When the issue of minor parties getting their act together in preferences was raised Bob Brown advised us that the greens had offered an exchange of preferences with the democrats as they have done in the pat. But the Democrats are yet to answer. Lyn Allison said these decisions are made closer to election date. The women who asked the question was disappointed with that answer. No-one mentioned that Labor Party preferences elected Family First in Victoria, who earned less than two percent of the primary vote.
Then a young woman asked Bob Brown what he thought of his ACT candidate Kerrie Tucker accepting a donation from the CFMEU. She (Jennifer Butterfield) didn't tell anyone she's on the staff of Liberal Senator Gary Humphries, or that she had written a press release attacking Ms Tucker on the issue.
Bob Brown pointed out it was the Construction Division of the CFMEU, rather than Forestry, and that Greens policies are clear. Senator Evans argued that the issue of donations was transparency; and that while Greens are open about donations; the Coalition Government has used its Senate Majority to make it easier to give anonymously.
As Campaign Coordinator for the Greens Kerrie Tucker, I admit to a highly coloured view. But it was a very full house of mostly older people that went streaming out into the cold Canberra night with arms full of GetUp material. Orange and Black are good colours for Winter. We will see how far that campaign spreads.