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.

Microsoft pans top-down content filtering

It is disappointing to read that the Rudd Government’s practically universally criticised Internet content filtering plan is slowly trundling onwards. Some controlled testing of ISP-level content filtering is reportedly set to take place in Tasmania, with tests scheduled to complete in July 2008. This is despite the ACMA’s own advice that filtering social networking sites (and indeed, blogs) is likely to prove a challenge for any content filtering system, and that education is likely a better method for modulating access to questionable material.

If the government needed any more persuading that its internet content filtering plan needs to be buried in a hurry, it doesn’t need to look much further than this story from Mark Sweney in The Guardian today. Matt Lambert, Microsoft’s Head of Corporate Affairs, had this to say about top-down online content filtering such as the scheme being progressed by Federal Labor:

But Lambert rejected the idea of a mandatory setting of content filters to a high security level, arguing that it would block too much content that posed no risk to children.Lambert said a better solution would be for parents to be better educated about what their children are looking at online and what content filters are available.

“Setting [filtering controls] at a high level is the equivalent to blocking the internet … it would be living in the dark ages in my view.” 

I would be interested to know just how many dollars are being wasted pursuing this sensationalist, curiously backward initiative each day. If the Federal Opposition are looking for a dud policy from Labor to score some easy points on, it is quite unlikely to find one more useful than this. The whole concept seems to only continue to survive on the scent of an oily rag; namely pandering to social conservatives who wouldn’t know what the Internet was if it bit them on the arse. Or what top-down content filtering really means until they can’t find websites describing certain anatomical body parts or “swear words” without calling Telstra and having the rest of the Internet turned back on.

Different people will want different levels of restrictions on content, and the government’s universalist approach on this issue is bound to please just about nobody. Some will be upset that the content filtering does not go far enough. Some will be upset that it goes too far. The numbers of people who are happy with what content is being filtered out are likely to be quite small at the end of the day.