Busting The Budget: Greens MP Condones Blocking Of Appropriation Bills By Senate

A NSW Greens MP, David Shoebridge, has advocated a parliamentary process that could see the Senate block the government’s Appropriation Bills, a tactic not employed since the constitutional crisis of 1975 that resulted in the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

ShoebridgeShoebridge today released a paper titled: “Busting The Budget – How to Stop the Abbott Budget”. The former barrister, who has been a member of the NSW Legislative Council since 2010, says the Senate could demand amendments to the Budget, as allowed under Section 53 of the Constitution.

Referring to Section 53, Shoebridge says: “In other words, the Senate can demand the Supply Bill be amended by refusing to pass it unless amendments are made. It can provide those amendments to the House of Representatives and force the Abbott government to either accept the amendments or see the budget voted down.”

Shoebridge says most functions of government would be able to continue, even if the Senate refused to pass the two Appropriation Bills. He says public servants are contracted to the Commonwealth and would receive the “necessary wages payments in due course”. He says: “The effect would be to delay the payment of public servants for the period of any impasse in the Senate.”

Shoebridge says the Senate can “choose the grounds on which to fight the budget” by refusing to agree to cuts to local government, social welfare, education, health and the environment. He says this will “force the Abbott government to either agree to these fair amendments or see its entire budget defeated with the consequential shut down of much of the government”.

What is Appropriation?

Governments cannot spend money without the approval of Parliament. Section 83 of the Constitution says that “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury of the Commonwealth except under appropriation made by law”.

Legislation passed by Parliament which provides money to the government is known as an appropriation. It is an act by which the Parliament grants money to the government. Appropriation Bills are also known as Supply Bills.

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Appropriation Bills

There are two main Appropriation Bills currently before the Parliament.

Appropriation Bill (No.1) covers the “ordinary services” of government, such as the salaries of public servants. It appropriates $79.8 billion. The full text and further information about the bill is available on the Australian Parliament House (APH) website.

Appropriation Bill (No.2) provides for the appropriation of $8.4 billion for 16 government departments. Information about the bill is also available on the APH website.

The total appropriations in the Budget amount to $414.8 billion. The two bills appropriate 21.26% of that amount. The rest of the Budget is contained in a range of separate bills.

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Parliament’s Powers Over Appropriation Bills

The Constitution, in Section 53, stipulates that Appropriation Bills must originate in the House of Representatives.

The Senate cannot amend laws imposing taxation or appropriating money for the ordinary annual services of the Government. Nor can it amend any law so as to increase a charge on the taxpayer.

However, the Senate is permitted to request an amendment from the House of Representatives.

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What Do These Powers Mean?

The effect of Section 83 is to ensure that the Government is accountable to the Parliament. Even if a government has won an election, it still needs to gain parliamentary approval for many of its decisions, especially for the spending of money.

By denying the Senate the power to introduce appropriations, Section 53 ensures that the government must be formed and based in the House of Representatives. This is why the Prime Minister never comes from the Senate.

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Parliamentary Conventions

Conventions are accepted practices and procedures which govern how the Parliament operates. They are not written down but have evolved over time.

One of the most important conventions is that the Senate does not block Supply. Whilst it is perfectly proper for an opposition to attempt to defeat the government by voting against Supply in the House of Representatives, it has rarely been regarded as a legitimate course of action in the Senate.

In theory, the Senate is a States’ House. Each state, regardless of population, has the same number of senators. Therefore, the Senate does not necessarily represent the wishes of the majority of the electorate, as the House of Representatives does. The Senate is also regarded as a House of Review. This function is one reason why a proportional voting system is used which results in the election of minor party and independent senators.

In practice, the Senate is capable of frustrating the wishes of the government elected in the lower House. Its power to block and amend legislation makes it a powerful institution. However, that power was not designed to give it the right to hold hostage a democratically elected government chosen by the people.

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The Dismissal

In 1975, the Senate refused to vote on the Appropriation Bills. With money still available, but running out, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, chose to end the 27-day stand-off by dismissing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. He commissioned the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Fraser, as the new PM, on condition that he immediately secure passage of Supply and recommend an election.

There was immense controversy over Kerr’s actions and the breaking of the long-established convention that the Senate does not block Supply. It has meant that no political party since has seriously advocated using the Senate to bring down a democratically elected government in the lower house.

The ALP National Platform commits the party to constitutional reform that “prevents the Senate rejecting, deferring or blocking appropriation bills”.

The Greens platform says the party supports “a strong Senate that can always act as a house of review”.

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Is Shoebridge Wrong To Use The Senate To “Bust The Budget”?

Yes.

Shoebridge’s proposal is reckless. As with the events of 1975, Shoebridge is proposing to use the Senate to destroy a democratically elected government. It is one thing to disapprove of the Abbott-Hockey Budget, but it is outrageous to use the Senate to block the Budget.

The fundamental principle is simply this: the government chosen by the people in the lower house should not be prevented from governing by the upper house. The “people’s House” is constituted and elected in such a way as to reflect majority opinion. It is the most “contemporary” of the two Houses. The Senate, whilst it has near equal legislative power with the House, is denied the power to determine who governs. It should not seek to do so by abusing its power.

Note that the current Senate – which will vote on the Appropriation Bills by June 30 – consists of 36 people who were elected in 2007 and 36 who were elected in 2010. Only the 4 Territory senators were chosen in last September’s election.

Fortunately, Shoebridge’s proposal will go nowhere because the ALP will not countenance blocking the Appropriation Bills. Without the ALP’s support, the Appropriation Bills cannot be defeated. Nevertheless, his plan is a timely reminder of the principles that underpin our parliamentary system. Those principles are more important than the contents of a particular Budget.

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