Friday, September 05, 2008

Why I'll be watching the senate

This article of mine was originally posted at Getup's new and sexy Project Democracy. Kudos to Jason Wilson for his terrific work on the site.


When parliament resumes in the new term, the television cameras will be trained to the Lower House dispatch box to capture the ten second grabs of wisdom emerging from the mouths of Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson (or whoever replaces that Dead Man Walking). Yet the real drama of the next parliamentary session will be happening in the purple chamber where a changing of the guard gives the new Senate an unpredictable make-up.

As of 1 July, the Coalition finally tipped over the poisoned chalice of its majority, the Democrats lost all their seats, and Labor will now be relying on a rainbow coalition of Greens, social conservatives and single-issue independents to push through their legislation. Fraught with hazard as the need to negotiate is, even John Howard might now admit it is no bad thing.

As Harry Evans wrote, only in a non-Government controlled Senate are the classic parliamentary functions of legislation, inquiry, and accountability exercised to any great extent. But from 2004 to 2007 the Upper House was merely an echo chamber. The Liberals used their majority to throttle debate to the extent that in their final year, the Senate passed less than one percent of all non-Government amendments. Their untrammelled power brought about hubris, and eventually their own demise. Kevin Rudd will have watched and learned.

Already, he is speaking in code to the new South Australian maverick Nick Xenophon by launching an independent water audit of the Murray-Darling Basin. Rudd;s own social conservatism may also yet find a sympathetic soul mate in Family First's Steve Fielding. And the Greens, while likely to grumble about the speed of Labor's reform, won't seriously tamper with the core direction.

The minor parties may also serve the useful function of bringing down some of Labor's more fanciful election promises, such as the oversold Fuel Watch, without the accompanying problem of having to justify why it won't be implemented. It also means Labor will need to negotiate every scrap of their agenda with the independents including some unpalatable amendments along the way. Some might complain about the Senate's "unrepresentative swill" ignoring a "mandate to govern" but this is parliamentary procedure as it should be. In any case, Rudd's favourable opinion polls gives him a big stick of a double dissolution threat if too many carrots of vested interests stick in his throat.

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