As a result of some discussion recently, I’d like to note down a few more thoughts on the possibilities of reform in the Australian Senate.
It is quite clear to most that the Senate does not function as intended, fulfilling, when it has the power to do so, a function of frustration rather than a function of principle. It is not so clear, nor nearly so agreed upon, as to what the appropriate course of action to undertake to remedy this situation is.
So let me lay out the competing position to the one that I have previously expounded upon (that the Senate should embody a principle, or set of principles, that must be enshrined and enforced if good governance is to occur over the course of our history). This alternate position holds that the successful embodiment of principled consideration of legislation is impossible and impractical, and that the government of the day should have its way in regards to the legislation it wishes to enact.
If we take this to be correct — and it may well be — then what does this suggest for the senate?
Firstly, that if a senate exists, its make up should closely mirror that of the lower house; if anything it should be more tightly aligned to the government of the day than the lower house is. Thus it must be aligned in time; any variation in voting methodology should be to the benefit of the dominant parties of the day; suffrage must match.
First considering constitutional possibilities:
– breaking up the existing states into smaller states, retaining some portion (notionally the state capital) as the ‘original’ state. This would lead to 6 ‘original states’ with six senators, and 14 new states with three senators. At this scale, a Hare-Clarke style system would be quite workable, and lead to the situation where a party picking up a majority of the vote in an new state would pick up two seats out of three, and three of six in the original states. These new states could be composed of and aligned with 6 electorates for the House of Representatives. This would suggest NSW having six new states divided off, Victoria having four carved out, Queensland three, Western Australia one, and South Australia and Tasmania remaining as original states. This is relatively easily achieved under the current constitutional limits, and would afford the government of the day considerable advantage in having legislation passed.
– Working with the states as they stand, senate positions could be awarded to the various parties in proportion to the house of representative results achieved at the federal election, allocated by a preference vote taken against a party senate list, or simply moving down that list.
Once you start opening up options for constitutional change, the possibilities are near endless. There is some suggestion about removing the notion of states altogether; this is possibly the most difficult approach in that the states are actually the sovereign units of our Federation. It would actually be simpler to disband the Federation — in fact, that may well be the only way to achieve that goal. That said the notion of removing the states and ending up with 30 super-councils would in practice look quite similar to the suggestion sketched out above, but with the original states broken into two chunks each and the possibility of ignoring existing state boundaries where they are inconvenient.
To be honest, this final concept rather horrifies me, as it leaves the nation with one legislative body, and that body with no restraint. It would lead to much faster and more disruptive changes to society, and be quite unstable in its nature. All the power of a sovereign vested in a popular government, with no drivers to principle or national purpose. No capacity for differentiation across the nation, no capacity for smaller scale legislative experimentation. I’m not even sure what the advantages are supposed to be, other than the utter concentration of power.