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June 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Gutted House, Broken System

June 27, 2006

by Steve Lewis - The Australian

The Howard Government has gone power crazy. Last week's decision to overhaul the Senate committee system risks undermining a vibrant parliamentary democracy. It is another brazen effort to stifle the voices of dissent and those who question the Government's untrammelled parliamentary power. Holding this Government accountable for its actions is becoming harder by the day.

After a decade in office, the Government is displaying the raw signs of an arrogant administration, drunk on its power and unwilling to subject its performance to the usual checks and balances our parliamentary system demands. John Howard makes Paul Keating look an amateur when it comes to wielding the big stick.

Finance Minister Nick Minchin's argument, that the Senate reforms will deliver a more efficient and effective committee system, is bunkum.

It will restrict the Senate's capacity to probe the dark corners of government activity; to call witnesses who could embarrass with their candour or knowledge. The Government has entrenched its parliamentary control by deciding to appoint its senators to chair each of the Senate committees. It will also reduce the present 16 committees to eight or 10.

On one level, the Coalition is merely being brutal in exploiting the parliamentary numbers it holds. But voters should not suffer these changes in silence. Democracy will be the big loser. The electorate is paying a high price for the unexpected decision to deliver the Government a one-seat Senate majority at the 2004 election. While Coalition senators argue they have a right to exploit this narrow majority, they have gone too far.

The Senate has worked at its best when cross-party committees have been able to properly scrutinise the effects of government reforms.

Senate committees have been a valuable tool, too, for allowing the public to comment on a raft of issues, from the GST to the deep stain of the military justice system.

Harry Evans, the long-serving Clerk of the Senate, warned after the 2004 election that parliamentary accountability would be tossed out in favour of a more ruthless, less accountable approach to parliamentary democracy. Alas, what Evans feared has come to pass.

The Government has used its numbers to undermine the parliamentary process, to apply the gag to debates and reduce the capacity of the opposition parties to question legislation brought before the parliament. Accountability means more than going to the polls every three years.

The independence occasionally exhibited by Coalition senators such as Queensland maverick Barnaby Joyce is no substitute for a sustained and robust committee structure. Backbench dissent does not equate with robust parliamentary debate.

A year ago, I warned the Government that "displays of arrogance will not be tolerated by the public, which has become accustomed to a Senate able to temper the excesses of a rampant, out-of-control executive". Unfortunately, that is exactly what we've witnessed from a Government intent on relentlessly shutting down the level of scrutiny.

To cite just a few examples, public servants have been prohibited from giving evidence on the AWB kickbacks scandal during Senate estimates hearings. Debates in parliament over big-ticket reforms, such as the full sale of Telstra, have been a sham. The guillotine has been applied more often. Senate debate on important pieces of legislation has descended into the farcical, bringing into question the Government's legitimate interest in maintaining a vibrant parliamentary democracy. It all seems so unreasonable and unnecessary.

The Government's reform agenda has been accelerated. Senate obstructionism is no longer an excuse.

As parliament breaks for the winter recess, the Coalition knows it has a lot of pluses going for it. The economy remains strong and unemployment low, and Labor has thus far struggled to make inroads by attacking the Government's workplace relations reforms.

Why, then, take a machete to the Senate committee process? Howard promised after the 2004 election that he would not abuse the Government's slim majority in the upper house. In the wake of last week's Senate announcement, the Prime Minister's words ring hollow. He should be condemned for allowing his Government to effectively throttle the Senate as a legitimate house of review. Instead, it is morphing into a rubber stamp for the executive.

Is there hope of a voter backlash? The Senate will feature more prominently as an issue in the 2007 election, as the opposition parties take the fight up to the Coalition with their pitch to make it more democratic.

Given recent behaviour, voters will have every right to turn on the Coalition's Senate team when they next get their turn, late next year.



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