Meg Lees On Parliamentary Reform: The Baby And The Bathwater

The following speech on parliamentary reform was given by Senator Meg Lees, Leader of the Australian Democrats, to the Sydney Institute.

Senator Meg LeesThere are many Australians who believe that our electoral system needs to change.

I am one of them.

The fact is that there are problems with our democracy, and the eve of the Centenary of Federation is an appropriate time to address them. However, in doing so, we should acknowledge, upfront, that in comparison to many other nations, Australia enjoys a healthy, stable and robust democracy.

We can work to make it better, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

And as a general principle, we can be guided on this matter by the words of a former Governor of New York – Alfred E. Smith – who said, and I quote –

“All the evils of democracy can be cured by more democracy.”

There are those today who do not share this view, particularly within the Coalition – but I will come to that later.

This evening I propose to do three things:

I want to point out to you that the calculated, orchestrated and sustained attack on the Senate – and in particular, the Democrats – is motivated by an overwhelming desire for absolute power on the part of the Executive.

I want to argue that it is the House of Representatives, not the Senate, that is in urgent need of reform and I want to make some suggestions as to how we might go about this.

And lastly, I want to respond directly to a few of the claims made by Senator Helen Coonan in her speech to the Sydney Institute a few weeks ago.

At the outset, we have to establish our definitions before we can have a constructive community debate. We have to be clear as to what we mean by phrases such as ‘stable government’, ‘responsible government’ or ‘representative government’.

For instance: what do we mean by the term Government? And do you spell it with a big or a little G?

This question is at the very heart of the current debate on electoral reform.

When Coalition MP’s talk about government, they mean the Prime Minister and his Ministers (and it is always ‘his’) and themselves having all power, and making all decisions, irrespective of the Parliament.

However, the Federating Fathers talked of government as something completely different.

An outline of the Constitution published by the Parliamentary Education Office describes it this way::


“How may the Constitution be summed up? Its most important feature is that it establishes a government consisting of three branches – the legislative, the executive and the judicial branch, and it provides that the legislative, executive and judicial powers are to be exercised by these three branches.”

By virtue of this definition, the Australian Democrats are part of the government in Australia.

A former Democrat Leader, my friend Janine Haines, made this point well during a debate in the Senate a decade ago when she said:


“In fact, we are part of the governing body of Australia. This Parliament consists of two chambers. Both of them have equal rights – or virtually equal rights – over legislation, and amending government legislation is as integral a part of being in government as taking the benches opposite is. We are as answerable for our actions as any other member in this chamber. We are part of government by dint of power and the position we hold in the Senate and we are prepared to stand on a daily basis and accept that.”

What Coalition MPs call ‘the Government’ is, in the strictest sense, the Executive. The Prime Minister and his senior ministers. Very big G.

So, just as the distinction between big ‘L’ and small ‘l’ liberals leads to confusion within the general community, so does the distinction between big ‘G’ and small ‘g’ governments. And this confusion serves the Executive well in its never-ending quest for absolute power.

The Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, made this point recently in an article by Laurie Oakes who writes often, and well, on the age-old battle between the Executive and Parliament as it is played out in contemporary Australia. I quote Mr Oakes:


“In Evans’ view, the talk of Senate reform emanating from the Coalition at the moment is easily explained. “Governments always want to remove any obstacles to their power, and the more power they’ve got, the more they try to remove the residual obstacles. You’ve got the Victorian government dismantling the Auditor-General, for example. It’s got a majority in both Houses, but it’s not willing to put up with even that residual check. Governments just naturally drive for absolute power, and people just have to be awake to that and resist it, because unless you have checks on power then you go down the slippery slope.”

In the current Federal sphere, the House of Representatives has already been captured by the Executive. The Executive, however, can’t ‘capture’ the current Senate so they seek to discredit it before attempting to dismantle its powers.

This ‘natural drive’ for absolute power has also seen members of this Government launch some of the most blatant – and blunt – attacks on the Judiciary that Australia has ever seen. Judges are in no real position to respond.

Laurie Oakes, in another article, looked at one of the ways in which the Executive has captured the House of Representatives. Writing in November last year he noted that, since Federation, the number of parliamentarians has doubled while the number of ministers has quadrupled.

The House of Representatives is no more than an echo chamber for the decisions of the Executive. We need go no further than the current tax debate to prove the point. For example:

  • Although there are some 17 pieces of legislation within this package – and the Government freely admits that it is the biggest change in taxation law since Federation – the House of Representatives was allowed a paltry 20 hours to debate these bills.
  • Secondly; it was left up to the Democrats in the Senate to force a public parliamentary inquiry into a new tax system – without which there would have been not a single opportunity for the community to have open input into the process as we change over from one tax system to another. Nor would there have been the opportunity to look at how the package will affect different Australians, in different income groups.

In the current debate I have become the public face of the Parliament as it withstands repeated and carefully orchestrated attacks by the Executive, in much the same way as Janine and Don Chipp were before me. The Coalition Ministry and their spin doctors have set out to position me as the devil incarnate by disciplined rhetoric based on political necessity.

It’s fascinating to note that while the Prime Minister, Peter Costello, Peter Reith and and the rest of them, rail against the Democrats – and me – in the Senate, they are very careful never to attack Senator Harradine or Senator Colston.

Nor do they attack the Nationals, who despite wielding considerable power, are a minor party existing on a very low vote. Indeed, they have just lost party status in the Senate.

The Nationals have much more power to alter Liberal policy than the Democrats ever will – more’s the pity. They have exercised this power, most recently, on issues such as Telstra and Wik, but it’s only the Democrats – not Senators Harradine or Colston, or the Nationals – who are attacked. I have no doubt that some Liberals would be quite happy to see the back of the Nationals but they enjoy a privileged position.

Given the factional breakouts in recent times, you might even like to consider the Liberals themselves as a collection of minor parties – and you might invite Chris Pyne and Nick Minchin to discuss that one.

So, although we do enjoy a stable, effective multi-party system of government, it is only the Democrats who are singled out by the Executive for attack.

Every day when I come to work I know that I stand between John Howard, Peter Costello, Peter Reith and what they want most in this world – absolute power. It’s not a particularly comfortable position to be in – but it’s my turn to hold the bridge and I’m not going anywhere.

The continuing battle for control between the Executive and the Parliament is a struggle as old as parliamentary democracy itself. It is the Executive’s battle for unfettered power that fuels the current push for so-called ‘reform’ of the Senate.

Despite what Mr Howard and his ministers constantly claim, it is not a ‘hostile’ Senate. I am the first to admit, however, that the Coalition spin doctors have been very successful in building a strong public perception that the Senate is ‘hostile’. They have done this through highly disciplined repetition and they started on day one of John Howard’s administration.

Even senior political journalists who, frankly, should know better, quite happily pepper their articles with the adjective “hostile” without stopping to think if it’s true.

The simple, undeniable fact is that the Senate has passed all but two bills during the Howard years, and this is in line with the historical average. Hardly evidence of ‘hostility’.

It is my view that the overriding objective of any electoral reform should be swinging the pendulum back towards vesting power in the Parliament.

This brings me to the paper which I have publicly released here today. Entitled “Government for all the people” it sets out the case for the reform of the House of Representatives’ voting system. It demonstrates, quite clearly, that though the House of Representatives should be representative, currently it isn’t.

There are five main problems, (or “evils”, as A. E. Smith called them), with the current House electoral system. Each of these ‘evils’ can be cured with more democracy and the “evils” are as follows:

  • The current electoral system denies representation to one in five Australians.
  • It provides a huge electoral advantage to incumbent Governments who are able to use their power to hold marginal seats in very tight elections despite not attracting the majority of the vote.
  • It reduces the role of the House of Representatives to that of an echo chamber for the Government of the day.
  • It minimises voters’ effective choices to just two similar major parties, even though 20-25% would prefer another party to represent them. Indeed, 93 of the 148 members chosen at the last election were not the first preference of the majority of voters in their electorates.
  • It results in major parties focusing on the 20-30 marginal seats which will decide the fate of Government. The other 120-130 electorates, particularly the 30-40 safe Opposition seats, are largely ignored by Governments.
  • It creates political ‘ghettos’, with large areas not having representation from both major parties. Sydney’s North Shore, with eight safe Liberal electorates of 80,000 voters, denies representation to 120,000 Labor voters. Sydney’s west has 10 safe Labor seats and 200,000 unrepresented Liberal supporters. And with a two party preferred vote of around 43 %, Labor won only 1 of the 16 non-metropolitan seats in Queensland, and the Liberals none of the 5 seats in Tasmania.

These facts and figures hardly support an argument for our current electoral system delivering a ‘representative’ House of Representatives.

So what should we do about it?

As part of an agreement with the British Liberal Democrats, the British Government has recently tackled the issue of the unrepresentative nature of their House of Commons. It established a Royal Commission, headed by Lord Roy Jenkins, to recommend a new electoral system.

Australian Democrats have looked to the Jenkins Royal Commission report to inform our own proposals for the reform of Australia’s electoral system.

As a Party we have long supported the introduction of proportional representation in Australia. We are, however, realistic enough to recognise that the major parties would never accept such a change. In the face of declining support, the two old parties are hardly likely to hasten their own demise.

However, I believe that the Jenkins model offers a good, practical compromise between the competing principles of local representation and fair representation.

We recommend a similar mix of local seats being ‘topped up’ from a party-based vote to make the House of Representatives more democratic.

Under our proposal, 80-85% of members of the House of Representatives would continue to be elected based on single-member constituencies and preferential voting. A further 15-20% of members would be elected based on a second vote by electors for the party of their choice. These seats would be allocated in each State to the most under-represented parties.

This second category of members would provide the pool to ‘top up’ the representation of that Party until the numbers of MPs accurately reflected voter support in each State.

This is not a radical proposal. It’s practical and reasonable.

Most importantly, it would ensure that a party with a minority of the two-party vote never accidentally ‘wins’ an election again – as the Howard Government did last October.

It has been said before and I shall say it again. Mr Howard enjoys a 12 seat majority in the House of Representatives having attracted only 48.7% of the two-party preferred vote.

If democracy can be defined as a situation wherein the will of the majority prevails, then Mr Beazley should have formed government after the October election. Worse still, this outcome was not exceptional. In one in four Australian elections, the electoral system delivers government to the “wrong” party. It’s worth noting that in other, less politically stable countries, similar outcomes have led to popular revolution.

The Jenkins model, however, could well lead to a rejuvenation of the House Committee system – as has occurred in the Senate over the last two decades since the Democrats arrived.

It could lead to all seats being, in effect, marginal seats. Apart from placing real power back into the hands of the voters at election time, it would mean that the national political agenda was no longer determined by polling in a mere handful of swinging seats.

The Jenkins model could rescue the House of Representatives from the clutches of the Executive.

There is much to commend our proposal and there are many other arguments put forward within the discussion paper. I urge you to read it.

Finally, I would like to respond directly to a few points made by Senator Helen Coonan when she presented the Executive’s case for absolute power, at an address here a few weeks ago.

Firstly, I restate the case put earlier – and that is that the problem Senator Coonan seeks to solve simply doesn’t exist. There is no objective evidence that the current Senate is hostile or is behaving any differently than former Senates over the past 20 years – and the statistics clearly support my view.

From May 1996 to July 11, 1998, 427 bills were passed. Two bills were negatived, 4 bills were passed by the Senate but were laid aside or discharged by the House of Representatives and one bill passed by the Senate but laid aside by the Reps was later recommitted and passed. Two other bills that were negatived in the Senate were later recommitted and passed. So, of 427 bills, only two remain negatived – the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill and the Telstra Privatisation Bill. The others were either passed after recommitting or laid aside by the Reps. Two bills negatived, 427 passed. 99.54% of bills passed. Now can someone explain to me again just how hostile the Senate is.

Having shown Senator Coonan’s rhetoric to be hollow, even if you accept her straw man argument, then her own solution would not work.

The threshold quotas that she proposes – which are more properly known as exclusion quotas – would not deliver a majority in the Senate to the Government of the day.

But don’t just take my word for it. Professor Campbell Sharman, from the University of Western Australia had the following to say about Senator Coonan’s proposals just last week on Australia Talks Back on ABC radio – and I quote:


“Senator Coonan’s proposals would not solve the problem which she points to. There is no way, given the current composition of the Senate – that is twelve Senators for each State and proportional representation – with or without thresholds – that the Government will ever, is ever likely to get a majority in the Senate. Because it means that the governing parties have to get 50% or more of the Senate vote and no government has been anywhere near that since early in the days that proportional representation was passed.”

And proportional representation has been in use in the Senate for 50 years now.

There are two specific points which Senator Coonan raised which do deserve comment.

Frankly, in the context of the current tax debate, I am offended at Senator Coonan attempt to draw a parallel between current Senate practice and the events of 1975 when her party controlled the Senate.

If you ever wanted a clear example of a ‘hostile’ Senate, then look no further than the events of 1975. My handling of the current tax package is positively sympathetic by comparison.

Further, many commentators argue that it is the revulsion of the electorate to the Senate’s behaviour in 1975 which underpinned the initial success of the Democrats in 1977 and 1980. In a way, the Liberals created the perfect environment for the Democrats to get off the ground.

But, however unpalatable the fact is to Senator Coonan and her colleagues, the Democrats have enjoyed enduring voter appeal ever since the late 70s on the basis of our own performance.

The Democrats do not dictate terms to Government. If we did, then frankly, Australia would be a much better place. There are real restraints in place, some practical and some, importantly, that are self-imposed. For instance, every generation of Democrat Senators has pledged not to block Supply. We have been remarkably consistent in approach to our role over 22 years.

This is recognised by voters. For instance, on the basis of many, many letters and many hundreds of phone calls, I have no hesitation in saying that in the most recent election there were very many Coalition voters who only felt comfortable in returning the Government to office because they were able to vote Democrat in the Senate as an ‘insurance policy’ – to make the tax package fairer.

The other specific point that I wanted to address is the 1983 vote to increase the size of the Senate. It is true that because of the increase in the number of Senators per state from 10 to 12, it is now mathematically impossible for a party with 51% of the vote to get a majority of seats in any state. We pointed this out at the time – when we voted against it. It came into law only because the Coalition split on this issue. That other minor party, the Nationals, voted with the Labor government to pass this law.

However, had the Coalition not split on this issue in 1983, and consequently there had been 10 Senators per state throughout the last 15 years – then, on our calculations, the Democrats would have held the balance of power outright throughout the entire period.

Perhaps this is why Senator Coonan glossed over this as an ‘option for reform’ with the dismissive comment that ‘politicians aren’t going to vote themselves out of existence any time soon’.

So, in conclusion, let me recap:

  • The Australian Democrats are happy to participate in a debate about electoral reform.
  • The debate will only be productive if Australians realise the motive of the Coalition in kick-starting this debate, is the drive of the Executive to secure for itself absolute power.
  • The present Government rules with less than 50% of the popular vote by virtue of a highly undemocratic electoral system in the House of Representatives.
  • The House of Representatives currently operates, simply, as an arm of the Executive. It is left to the Senate to perform the function of the Parliament as set out in the Constitution.
  • The current Senate is not ‘hostile’. Although the Executive has been successful in building this perception; the facts belie the rhetoric.

The people of Australia must realise that this most recent set of attacks on the Senate – and the Democrats – has been generated by the Government, deliberately and strategically, in the context of the tax debate, unfair dismissals and the upcoming Telstra debate. If the Coalition Executive can tear down the Democrats – and me personally – then they are one step closer to what they want – absolute power,

Despite occasional outbursts by the more excitable and less intellectually rigorous sections of the print media, my colleagues are quietly determined to defend the parliament against the drive of the Executive for unfettered power.

The objective of any electoral reform should be to swing the power pendulum back towards the Parliament – and thereby the ordinary men and women of Australia. Electoral reform should not push the power pendulum any further towards the Executive.

The Coalition and their very vocal supporters fail to accept that the Australian people do not want the Government of the day to have a majority in both houses. Simply put, if Australians wanted Mr Howard to have a majority in the Senate, they would have given him one. They didn’t – and they’re not likely to next time either.

If we are really serious about electoral reform, let’s start where the need is most urgent – in the House of Representatives. The electoral system for the House of Reps must be overhauled before it can be truly called ‘Representative’ and the model put forward by Lord Roy Jenkins provides a suitable practical plan for reform for Australia.

In the meantime, there are many features of our democratic system that all of us would agree are valuable, proven and worth keeping. When we come to reform our electoral system, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Thank you.

Print Friendly