Pauline Hanson decided to wear a burqa in the Senate last year. Picture: Lukas Coch
Pauline Hanson decided to wear a burqa in the Senate last year. Picture: Lukas Coch

We need Senate reform, now more than ever

When those bewhiskered old coots we like to call our founding fathers were trying to nut out a constitution and hammer together a nation, they took what they believed were the best elements of the British and the United States political systems.

However, there are times when you suspect they might have picked the wrong bits.

From Britain we took our House of Representatives, with members elected from proportionately balanced electorates.

From the US we adopted the Senate, probably because in those days they couldn't quite countenance direct governance by the people's house and because they had to placate the states, which were jealous of their powers.

Oddly while the British are gradually drawing the fangs of their House of Lords by culling the sitting peers and curtailing its powers, the upper houses continue to confound the democratic process in both Australian and the US.

In Australia the electoral process for the House of Representatives has served us tolerably well and largely conforms to our democratic principles.

An independent electoral commission keeps the electorates pretty much even in numbers and the opportunities for skulduggery are seriously curtailed.

Any controversies are usually about redistributions caused by population changes but they are generally nothing more than reactions to sometimes tasty, sometimes unpalatable facts of political life.

Last year, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, who represents Queensland, wore a burqa into the Senate in an attempt to make a political point. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch
Last year, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, who represents Queensland, wore a burqa into the Senate in an attempt to make a political point. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch

It's not perfect and has delivered us governments without popular majorities, notably in 1998 when Kim Beazley's Labor Party won a fairly handsome majority of the vote but was seriously trounced when it came to seats in the house.

But, it sort of works, and it certainly works better than in the United States where House of Representatives elections are bedevilled by administrative partisanship, gerrymanders and a desire to reverse democratic progress by disenfranchising minorities.

Even there, where voting is a chore rather than duty, House elections are a paragon of purity compared with the Senate.

And it is here that we can draw distasteful comparison between the respective senates.

Both senates are intrinsically undemocratic because they represent not people but states.

They represent the status quo of the times of their invention and seem constitutionally incapable of adaptation to meet the realities of the present.

The US settled on two senators per state, as did Australia, but the original premises no longer hold water.

California, which didn't exist when the US constitution was drawn up, now has a population pushing 40 million but gets the same senatorial representation as Wyoming with just 579,000 people.

Last month, Mathias Cormann and other Coalition senators “accidentally” voted in support of Pauline Hanson’s “It’s Okay to be White” motion. The senators later retracted their support. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch
Last month, Mathias Cormann and other Coalition senators “accidentally” voted in support of Pauline Hanson’s “It’s Okay to be White” motion. The senators later retracted their support. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch

In the recent midterm elections it was estimated Democrats led Republicans by more than 12 million votes but still took some hits and failed to win a majority of seats in the chamber.

This you might applaud or deplore, depending on what coloured cap you wear, but it is difficult to pretend it is democratic when this weirdly skewed house of 100 people has as much clout as all the 435 members of the lower house.

In case you think there was some original nobility behind the Senate, remember James Madison, father of the US constitution, wrote: "Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The Senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability.''

I don't think anything quite so brutally honest was said of our Senate but it was designed partly to protect the established order of colonial times.

Why else would Tasmania (population 515,000) have the same number of senators as New South Wales (7.6 million) or Queensland (4.7 million)?

Smaller states like South Australia, which Penny Wong currently represents, have the same number of senators as larger states like New South Wales and Queensland. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch
Smaller states like South Australia, which Penny Wong currently represents, have the same number of senators as larger states like New South Wales and Queensland. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch

With some qualifications, including the threat of double dissolution, 76 senators have the power to confound the work of 150 members of the lower house.

The quality of some individuals lifts the Senate above Paul Keating's description of it as "swill" but his charge of "unrepresentative" remains valid.

And its recent record shows that any claims to be a states' house just don't stand up under examination, even allowing for the confusion of an infestation of minor parties, cranks and crackpots.

The US constitution can be changed but with difficulty and with great reluctance.

It took it 13 years to repeal the 18th amendment (prohibition) but 227 years later it still clings to the murderous 2nd amendment (the right to bears arms).

Australia is similarly reluctant to make constitutional changes with just eight of 44 referendums carried.

However, the referendums that have been carried show that with bipartisan political will and national consultation and consensus, changes can be made.

If our politicians can't begin to even talk about making the Senate truly representative, they should be ashamed to pretend they are part of a democratic process.

Terry Sweetman is a columnist for The Courier-Mail.



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