In the wake of the recent federal election, and the follow up by-election in Western Australia, the need for reform to the Australian Senate is widely recognised — specifically to the voting process, but also the structure of the senate itself. However prior to getting into the specifics of those reforms, it is imperative that the purpose and contribution of the Senate is considered.
The Senate is widely called the house of review. This is quite aimless in and of itself; for review to have value, it must take place on a known and desired basis. The basis on which this takes place, in practice, is completely determined by the differences between the Senate and the House of Representatives. It is more correct to say that a well structured Senate functions to limit the worst excesses of democracy through the protection of the abiding principles of governance from the follies of the day.
Only in to the extent that it differs from the House of Representatives, does the Senate provide value.
The corollary to this of course is that the Senate demonstrates its value when it modifies or rejects legislation put forward by the House of Representatives. For this restraint to be considered worthwhile in the long run, the value of those changes must be greater than the frustration they cause. They must be clearly in accordance with the fulfilment of the principles of difference that exist between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Furthermore, the basic principle of the lower house must be known and fulfilled by that house.
The House of Representatives serves to completely fulfil the concept of ‘one person subject to taxation, one vote’.
Once this is understood, it becomes clear that this principle is near irrelevant to the Upper House. Thus it is not a valid complaint, in respect of the Senate, to point out that Tasmania far fewer people than New South Wales, but the same number of Senators. On the other hand, it is quite valid to point out and redress mal-apportionment on the basis of population in the Lower House. The Senate does not need to address that principle, except where not doing so reduces its capacity to protect the principles it exists to express.
So what principles does the Senate encapsulate; what additional principles should it capture?
Currently the Australian Senate maintains differences of greater and lesser effect based upon length of term, proportional representation, and geographic distribution. The principles behind these differences may be summarised:
Federal Law should not change on the whim of the day but with slow deliberation in concert with change in societal values, giving due consideration to what has held true in the past.
Federal Law should be reviewed in the presence of representatives of different schools of thought present in reasonable proportion throughout the states.
Federal Parliament should not easily dictate to a state standards that are not in keeping with its regional mores simply because more other, more populated states have different mores.
I would also submit the following for consideration, that is not captured at all in the current system:
The expenditure of Federal Parliament should be subject to review and approval by representatives of those whose primary income is not provided by the government.
Each of these issues is more or less perfectly (in most cases, less) captured in the current system. If we hold that these principles should be maintained, then every effort should be made to see that they are well captured, and not devolved in practice by the perditious political machinations of representative democracy. In detail:
The longer term nature of Senate seats, both in the term of office and the increased likelihood of seat retention works well in capturing the principle outlined above. The only change I suggest in terms of timing is that Senate elections take place on a rolling basis — one state every six months, rather than the three year half cycle we currently have.
Quite clearly, proportional representation has become unwieldy due to the group voting ticket abomination. The simplest method of resolving this is to adopt a proven proportional system, such as the Hare-Clarke system we have in Tasmania. Adopted as is, with a minimum voting depth of 10 and a maximum of 5 candidates per party, the proliferation of micro parties that is occurring solely to take advantage of the current process would be addressed at the source. Furthermore, technological solutions to increase the timeliness of the result can be adopted. The use of scanning pens in the voting booths that store each individual vote while retaining the existing full paper trail would dramatically reduce the time required for a count, while retaining the same degree of security, privacy, and the same process as currently in use. A process refined over the course of 100 years is not lightly to be discarded, despite recent hiccups.
I was involved in a discussion recently regarding the resolution of the issue of geographic distribution. The result of that discussion was a proposal to excise each of the state capitals and their contiguous urban areas from the original states, reducing the number of Senators for each state to 8 (leading to a total of 100 senators once the territories are included). The lower house would increase to a scale (200 seats) that allowed an even distribution of electors there, resolving the issues of the over representation of Tasmania in the House of Representatives.
Finally, it must be noted that the Upper House does not in any means capture the principle behind the original Upper House, the House of Lords. That is, that those who fund government must have the capacity to limit the expenditure of government —he who pays the piper calls the tune. This principle requires at the very least that suffrage for the Upper House is limited to those who do not depend upon the state for their primary source of income. This constraint is deeply divisive but necessary. It provides a driver for integrity and honour in politics; without it, democracy has a corrosive and corrupting influence upon our politicians first, and our culture second. If that pressure is not borne by the system, it is borne by the individuals within it, a proportion of whom inevitably fail.
If we are to have democracy, it must be properly restrained. What is proposed here is a Senate intended to do just that; comprised of proportionally elected individuals within the the six states, the six city-states, and the two territories. These Senators represent the long term views of the electors in those regions who are not dependant on government for their primary source of income, and review legislation proposed by the democratic House of Representatives on that basis. In doing so, the capacity for reestablishing integrity in politics, restraint in government spending and limits on government intrusion into our private lives can be found, at least for a time, until this structure too, needs reform.