Is this really what Australia wanted in the Senate?

I am normally a staunch defender of the Senate as a house of review and debate. The upper house of parliament affords our political system with a much needed sense of balance; it is a forum through which the normally sizable minority (e.g. over 40%) of people who did not vote for the government can have their voice heard. Although this means that the views that I support don’t always get enshrined in legislation in an unadulterated fashion, this is merely a captive concern. I think from a democratic point of view that legislation agreed as part of a majority political compromise is in many cases the fairest result for the Australian people.

On the other hand, I don’t support antics like these from Family First Senator Steve Fielding. I don’t accept that representatives of the Senate who were elected with less than 2% of the vote over four years ago have the right to effectively block or significantly alter legislation introduced by a government endorsed at the polls less than a year ago. The fairly absurd Senate lottery system that we have in this country sometimes hands power in excess of what the electorate intended to individual members. Therefore, representatives in the Senate who have such a small proportion of the nation’s voters behind them (as Fielding does) need to strive to wield their power in a manner that is cogniscent of their actual support in the electorate. Fielding has metaphorically been granted a gun licence by the electorate to use in self-defence, but recently, he has been using it to cap anyone who doesn’t bow down to his “supreme authority”. That’s just plain wrong.

The people of Australia did not really want Steven Fielding or Nick Xenophon to be the supreme legislative arbiters of this country; that is what has happened as an unfortunate consequence of our electoral system. I believe that senators who act in a way that runs counter to the spirit of the office they hold and the representation they actually enjoy should be censured. The sort of behaviour I am talking about is not unconstitutional, but if our constitution was defined more rigorously and in a manner befitting the times we live in, it would be regarded as such.

6 thoughts on “Is this really what Australia wanted in the Senate?

  1. I agree that reducing the medicare threshold doesn’t really make any sense unless it is in the context of a broader package of reform / funding. On the other hand, as you say, Senator Fielding does not seem to be blocking the passage for any rational reason.

    While it’s not institutionalised, I am sure that any of the Opposition members could, if they could be organised enough, organise a policy paper or indeed a petition outlining why the raising of the medicare threshold is a bad idea and should be replaced with another form of tax relief if required.

  2. I do not agree that “people did not really want…Nick Xenophon”….after all 20% of all SA voters voted for him…a much better than average amount of votes! Better also than ‘faceless majorities’ who merely vote along party-lines because it is expected.
    Besides…if Fielding, Xenophon or any other senator makes too much of a goose of themselves in parliament…hopefully they will be ousted at the next election.
    Meanwhile I for one like ‘wild cards’ in parliament…it represents smaller but sectional growing of interests that otherwise might get squashed.
    There should be many more Independents too….and each deserves a special medal because THAT person got all the way on their own! No big party back up for them so all the more reason why they deserve to have a bit of clout.

  3. Matthew, not sure where you are coming from with that suggestion – could you elaborate?

    Libby, I suppose it isn’t really fair to lump Nick Xenophon in quite the same boat as Family First, although he did only collect 14.9% on first preferences in the Senate, not 20%. You’re right that Senators who act like geese will be likely voted out, but Senate elections only occur every six years, not three like the House of Representatives. Nick Xenophon, for example, is not going to face the electorate with his seat up for grabs until 2012!

    I don’t have a problem with independent or minor party representation in the Senate, provided that:

    a) Representatives are truly elected in a proportional fashion on their merits and not through a dog’s breakfast of backroom preference deals.

    b) Independent and minor party representatives don’t forget that in most scenarios, 80% of the population did not vote for them and that they need to wield their power accordingly.

  4. An independent with balance of power in parliament is one thing, a head of state with veto power is another.

  5. Heh heh – I see. Move over Quentin Bryce, meet Steven Fielding, Australia’s new de facto head of state! 😉 Looking it at that way, it really is quite absurd that a single member in the Senate (supported, let me remind us all, by less than 2% of his electorate) can wield so much power.

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