Senates that work? The Australian experience

I have recently returned from a research fieldtrip to Australia. The following is an extract of an article of mine from The Irish Examiner, April 2 2010.
I have examined the experience of the Australian Senate, of interest in Ireland because of Fine Gael’s proposals to abolish the upper house. (Given the likelihood of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition after the next election, I would like to hear Labour’s plans concerning the Seanad)

Given the robustness of Australia’s economy in escaping the global recession, I came here to understand how its political system functions and what we can learn from its experience. This is especially important in the context of the current debate in Ireland on reforming and renewing our democracy.
With a shared colonial heritage and the large waves of immigration from Ireland to Australia it is not surprising that the two political systems have much in common.
We both adopted the Westminster parliamentary model of our past imperial masters, with whom our respective relationships still have a significant imprint on our two polities.
Being island states, both Ireland and Australia are at times guilty of insularity and exceptionalism. Knowledge of, and interest in, politics outside of their respective jurisdictions can be quite limited, producing a narrow world-view that is often ill-informed at best or prejudiced at worst.
However it is there the similarities end.
To begin with, despite a population five times greater than Ireland and a territory one hundred times larger, Australia has the same number of national parliamentarians (226) as ourselves. There are 150 members elected to the House of Representatives, each representing a single seat, thus avoiding the duplication of constituency work that occurs in Ireland’s multi-seat electoral districts. Not only that, but MPs cannot pass the parcel of accountability in their respective regions as voters know the buck stops with them.
Heavy demands are placed on both the voters and the politicians. Voting is not only compulsory (fines are in place for non-offenders, which if unpaid can result in a jail sentence), but for a vote to be counted, preferences must be cast for all candidates.
This might seem challenging to some voters in Ireland, where the average number of preferences cast is approximately four, but it does at least force voters to consider the merits of all candidates. Of course, it also has the consequence that some simply cast their lower preferences in alphabetical order – known as ‘donkey voting’ – a phenomenon evident occasionally in Ireland.
The heavy demand placed on politicians is that elections are frequent, usually every three years in the lower house of parliament. While such a short mandate does limit the ability of Australian governments to implement long-term plans, voters prefer to keep their MPs on a tight leash. Indeed, one MP noted that he is forever on his toes as an election is never too far away. Australians believe that this is the way things should be; politicians are supposed to be servants of the people, not the other way round.
What is of particular interest in the Australian parliament is the role of the upper house, especially considering Fine Gael’s recent proposals to abolish the Seanad, as was re-stated in its recently published ‘New Politics’ document.
To this end, I have compared the Irish and Australian Senates with colleagues in my base of Swinburne University in Melbourne. They identified three main flaws with the Seanad: it is indirectly elected; the Taoiseach appoints eleven members, thus ensuring a majority for the government; and it has no real powers. Any of these issues warrants serious reform. Indeed, it was for the first of these reasons that New Zealand chose to abolish its upper house in 1951.
The experience of the Australian Senate is wholly different. Probably the third most powerful upper house in the world, its 76 members are elected by the same method used in the Seanad, the single transferable vote.
Unlike the Irish variant, however, the suffrage is not limited to politicians and university graduates, but to all adults. Being elected under a form of PR not only gives the upper house a distinct identity (the lower house is elected by STV in single-seat constituencies), it also ensures a more balanced representation than the lower house, allowing for a greater range of voices to be heard.
In contrast, one factor accounting for the irrelevancy of the Seanad is that in its composition, its differentiation from the Dáil is as great as Tweedledee’s was from Tweedledum. Not only that, but the lifetime of the Seanad is entirely dependent on the Dáil, meaning that it is difficult for the second chamber to carve out a separate existence.
In Australia, half of the Senators are elected between general elections in a staggered format and each state elects the same number of Senators, resulting in a regional composition that is different to the lower house. In extreme situations, notably when a Senate blocks a lower house bill on two consecutive occasions, the prime minister can call a double dissolution of both houses, but this power is rarely exercised.
The Australian bodypolitic would not appreciate a situation like our own where the government almost always has a majority in the Senate. The ability of the upper house to frustrate the wishes of the lower house is very much supported as a crucial component of the Australian parliamentary system of checks and balances.
Indeed, an extreme example of this happened in the 1970s. A double dissolution was called by the prime minister Gough Whitlam because the Senate was blocking his legislation. The ensuing election did not give his Labour party a majority in the upper house, which then proceeded to refuse the pass the government’s budget. The deadlock was only resolved by the intervention of the governor-general who sacked the prime minister in 1975 (this is one particular feature of the Australian political system that we do not wish to replicate).
As this example indicates, the Australian Senate has quite specific powers, including the ability to veto all legislation. The classic justification for such powers was given by former US president George Washington, who compared an upper house to a saucer into which he can pour his coffee: it ‘cools’ heated legislation.
Since the governing party in Australia rarely has a majority in the Senate, its legislation sometimes gets cooled by the upper house. Consequently, the government cannot ride roughshod over parliament and guillotine legislation as can happen in the Dáil. Instead it may have to engage in a consultative process. The end product is better policy that feeds off the input of those in parliament, not just ministers in government.
In the current Senate, the Labour government is dependent on the support of an independent, Nick Xenophon and the leader of a small christian values party, Steve Fielding. While some Australians are aggrieved at the disproportionate power wielded by these individuals – similar to Irish sentiment concerning the influence of Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae in the Dáil – they prefer this situation to a government-controlled upper house.
In other words, Australians’ main concern is not with a few independents having a bit more power than usual, but in ensuring that the government does not have excessive power.
The famous French constitutional lawyer, the Abbé Sieyès, noted that ‘if a second chamber dissents from the first, it is mischievous; if it agrees, it is superfluous’. Irish political culture seems to echo such sentiment. Accountability is simply seen as something that halts progress rather than an enhancement of democracy. Because it is equated with mischief explains the occurrence of real, corrupt mischief in the first place.
My overall impression of the Australian political system is that democracy down under is something tangible. It not just a descriptive label, but rather a value that moulds the design and operation of its institutions. It does not simply mean that the people are consulted every so often at elections, in between which the government can largely do what it wants (as seems to be the case in Ireland). Australia believes in checks and balances, accountability and transparency.

4 thoughts on “Senates that work? The Australian experience

  1. Can we really make the connection between Nick Xenophone’s willingness to pass legislation and the Australian avoidance of global recession? I agree that the more heads and voices that see something the better, especially if they come from a different point of view. But do we really want a situation where there’s gridlock? I suppose one can argue that it’s easy to overcome gridlock with legislation that makes compromises. Or is it that the government has spent money in Xenophone’s district and he passes whatever as a result?

    I think that if we want a second chamber it should have some expertise and different perspectives. But we don’t want it to be bought off with a for instance reassurance that the Tipperary Institute won’t be closed down! That doesn’t make good legislation. How we elect/ select these politician and what powers they have is important. If they’re locally elected, that’s what they’ll do. Senators such as the University senators, whatever about their democratic credentials, play a useful role by bringing non-party political positions and some diversity of background to the Oireachtas.

    What about a wholly appointed, and completely unpaid Senate with 200 members? These could be people who are appointed on the basis of positions they held, so all former party leaders, all former Supreme Court judges, former heads of trade unions, former university presidents – you get the idea. Coming up with a workable appointments system might be difficult, but not beyond the wit of man. These senators for life (or we could force them to retire at 80?) would probably engage in those areas they have some expertise. They could veto legislation, but it could be overturned by the Dáil after a Dáil debate that considered the substance of the Senate’s objections and addressed them formally. At least then we might get the rational debate, expert opinion and diversity of opinion we may feel currently lacking, but not lose the democratic nature of the Dáil as the sovereign decision maker.

    I’m still concerned however, that we’ve got the wrong focus when concentrating on the Seanad and the electoral system. Ministers are very powerful – they make decisions, on their own and with cabinet colleagues that very often don’t need legislative approval and therefore often escapes legislative oversight. If the system’s broke, it’s broken in government. It’s there we should concentrate our energies to fix it.

  2. There are executive agencies in most states, but not Tasmania, and a Federal one, dedicated to doing what the police might not. They deal with politically sensitive issues and corruption. They are successful and are widely supported.

  3. The idea of an appointed, unpaid Senate is appealing. But if that works, why stop there? Why not model the Dáil on the same idea?
    This would certainly be bringing politics ‘back to basics’ in terms of how it was originally practiced.
    I agree that Senate and electoral reform may be missing the point, but it is the parties who have set this agenda. Speaking of which, it is Fianna Fáil, simply because of its longevity in office, that has been responsible for most reform in this country. When will it speak out on these issues?
    I would prefer to have a debate on these issues outside of the arena of partisan politics and elections, but maybe that is unrealistic considering the role played by parties in modern democracies?

  4. “Heavy demands are placed on both the voters and the politicians. Voting is not only compulsory (fines are in place for non-offenders, which if unpaid can result in a jail sentence), but for a vote to be counted, preferences must be cast for all candidates”
    Excellent article; the political apathy of a vast swathe of Irish citizens,in my opinion, facilitates the ‘buying” of the politicized sectional interest groups (farmers etc) who do vote “en block”, and distorts immensely both the fair allocation of financial resources (Aer Lingus pre-privatization),and many other needed reforms which the government of the day knows will not attract the ire of the voters it has already “bought”.
    This article reveals the “checks and balances” in the best Democracies (Australia, U.S.A.) which are totally absent in the Irish model.

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