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No sense aligning Australian Senate terms with House of Reps'

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By Kerry Sibraa

In last week’s The Australian (Thursday 13 February, 2014) Greg Sheridan produced another thought-provoking contribution to the Australian political debate.  Drawing upon a recent article produced for The American Interest by American Political Scientist and former neo-con, Francis Fukuyama.

Sheridan argues that powerful interest groups have too big a sway upon decision-making and will not allow Tony Abbott to take full advantage of his mandate and implement his election promises. In other words, the power of interest groups mean the Australian political system, just like the American system, now operates as a “vetocracy”.  One of these powerful interest groups is of course the union movement.

He quotes extensively from Fukuyama who describes the vetocracy in the US as “the process whereby the American system of checks and balances makes collective decision-making based on electoral majorities extremely difficult.’’

Despite the rich contextual debate framed by the Fukuyama article, and Sheridan’s sharp articulation of some of the challenges faced by our system, his argument and solution largely seems to hang on this one quote.  Sheridan argues the whole problem boils down to a single issue – that despite his sizeable victory in last year’s election, Abbott does not control the Senate, and therefore is denied his mandate to abolish the Carbon Tax and make changes to the Industrial Relations system.

His solution is “a small, sensible, technical change” to the Constitution whereby Senate terms would be aligned with the House of Representatives thereby largely correcting this situation and allowing Tony Abbott or any other future Prime Minister to implement his or her mandate.

Whilst I normally have a lot of respect for Sheridan’s views, particularly on matters of foreign policy, in this instance he has lost me.

It’s unbelievable that given the bulk of his piece rails against Australia’s “grotesque” industrial relations system, Sheridan seems to be somehow suggesting Abbott was elected with a mandate to reform industrial relations law, when of course the opposite is true.  Not only did he stay silent on IR policy during the election campaign, but he ran a mile from it.  Just like John Howard in 2003, Abbott did not talk to voters about the need to reform our IR system.  Abolishing the Carbon Tax, yes, IR reform no.

And speaking of Howard – let’s remember that his election victory in 2004, on the back of his election victory in 2001, was so comprehensive, he actually managed to achieve that rare thing in Australian federal government - control of the Senate. This handed him the irresistible opportunity to take IR legislative and judicial power from the States using the Corporations Act and implement the kinds of IR changes he could previously only have dreamt of.  It’s quite ironic that later in his article as Sheridan catalogues the faults of our IR system and its impact on the economy that he actually laments this change saying “it was a tremendous mistake for the states to give up their industrial relations powers to Canberra”.  

Well that wasn’t the only mistake.  Let’s also remember what happened next.  Howard used his mandate to implement IR reforms without the permission of Australian voters, and was utterly rejected in the following election, joining the ranks of only one other Prime Minister in Australia’s history, his conservative predecessor Stanley Bruce in 1929, to lose his own seat.  Not a good precedent to follow really.

Let’s also look at Sheridan’s “small sensible technical change” that would bring synchronisation to the House of Representatives and the Senate.    Sheridan is making quite an assumption here about Australian voters by suggesting this will ensure the elected government will be able to operate with a majority in both Houses. 

Firstly, Sheridan assumes that voters support the same Party in each House.  While this may be the case for the “rusted-on” voters supporting either of the two major parties, we know this group is becoming smaller and largely irrelevant and it is the group in the middle, the “swinging voters” that determine the outcome of elections.  These voters are far more likely to hedge their bets.  And as election outcomes suggest, frequently do.  

To prove the point here in New South Wales, the two Houses operate in alignment exactly as Sheridan would like.  This has been the case since 1991 when the four-year fixed term was approved by referendum.  Just looking at Bob Carr’s three terms of government, with two solid election victories in 1999 and 2003, not once during that time did his government have control of the Legislative Council, and it is still the case for Barry O’Farrell today.

Lastly, I would argue there is absolutely no need to change the Constitution to give Tony Abbott or any other Prime Minister a means of controlling the Senate.  The provision exists already – it’s called a double dissolution.  If Tony Abbott is so convinced the majority of Australians think he should have an absolute majority in both Houses – he has the trigger.  Have the Senate reject his Carbon Tax Repeal legislation three times and call a double dissolution election.

Our system may not be perfect – show me one that is – but it’s pretty good.  And as Bob Hawke used to say “the voters usually get it right”.

If Tony Abbott wants IR reform – he should argue his case and put it to the Australian people to judge.  It’s what John Howard did in 1998 with the GST.  He was elected and got it through a Senate he didn’t control.  Many would argued that the compromises agreed to with the minor parties in exchange for passing the Bill made the tax more palatable.  Perhaps if that had been the case with his IR reforms he may not have been so humiliated in 2007.

But that is called living in a democracy.