The Senate and Responsible Government
The Senate and Minor Parties
Prospects for Reform
There has been much discussion about the role of the Senate in the Australian political system. Some believe it is an obstacle to the federal government while others speak of it as a keeper of Checks and Balances. With the Senate move away from the role intended by the founders of the Federation as a representation of the states and with its clear domination by party politics, the debate has intensified. This essay will examine the degree to which the Senate enhances or undermines the Australian system of Federal Democracy.
First, I will discuss the relationship between the Senate and the principle of responsible government. Then I will take a closer look on the part that minor parties play in the decision-making in the second chamber and how their performance is linked to the idea of minor party representation in a federal democracy. Finally, I will examine at some prospects of reform for the Senate.
The Senate and Responsible Government
According to Nick Economou one of the key features of a liberal democracy is the Parliaments’ answerability and accountability to the people. This doctrine constitutes the key feature of Westminster-style democracies, namely responsible government. The term ‘parliament’ in this case means, the government of the day is responsible to the lower house of parliament for all its actions. The parliament on the other hand is answerable and accountable to the people through regular elections. The founders of the Australian Federation intended the Westminster-system, although it has not been codified in the Constitution. It was chosen, because it was a familiar form of government, which had been in effect in the colonies beforehand.
Yet we have to take into account that the founders of the Federation not only borrowed from the British system of government, but also from the American. The fact that Australia was designed as a federation made it necessary to set up a second chamber to give the states reasonable representation on the federal level. The American Senate influenced its Australian counterpart with the concept of a states' house. It was also installed to provide an effective check on the House of Representatives, as a constraint to the federal governments' power. The Senate and the House of Representatives (HoR) have almost equal powers, however the Senate cannot originate financial bills.
This unique design is the origin of the discussion of the role of the Senate in the Australian political system. Commentators who emphasize the Westminster aspect may argue that the Senate, with its extended powers, is an obstacle for the government of the day, in implementing the policies, on the basis it was elected by the people. This argument comes from the view that if a party or coalition has received a mandate to govern, it should be able to do so without any restrains from another body. This is meant to provide the government with the possibility to react quickly to a changed situation, e.g. to pass a reform package to avoid an economic crisis. The Senate, as a checks and balances, undermines the principle of responsible government, in the sense that the government is not only answerable and accountable to the parliament and therefore to the people but also to the Senate. In this case, the democratic values are considered more important than the liberal notions.
The counter-argument sees the Senate as an important constraint to the power of the government. It is argued that the HoR, due to the party or coalition in power controls the majority of the House, is not able to fulfil its classic function of scrutinizing the government. In the Australian system, the Senate takes over this function to serve the liberal idea of protecting the individual, by constraining the power of the state, which is another key feature of a liberal democracy.
As a consequence, the Senate has to act between those two poles to define its role within the political system. A Senate that is dominated by the opposition can use its powers to delay or reject government legislation. The Constitutional Crisis of 1975 has shown that these powers can drive an administration out of office.
The debate over whether this construction enhances or undermines the Australian liberal democracy is almost an endless one. The government of the day will always stress the democratic values and the Westminster-approach and call for a reform of the Senate to strengthen its own powers. The opposition will, of course, fiercely reject every attempt of this kind and point out the importance of a strong Senate as a watchdog on the government and a keeper of citizen rights. When the government changes, the viewpoints change in the same way.
The Senate and Minor Parties
When we take a closer look at the way decisions are made in the Senate, there is another point that deserves some attention: the role of minor parties. Whereas the majority voting system for the House of Representatives constitutes a 'winner-take-all'-system and enhances a two-party-system, the proportional representation via the single-transferable-vote (STV)-system used in Senate elections, gives minor parties better representation. Although there were some doubts after the increase of the number of Senators to be elected from each state from five to six in 1984, there was no substantial decrease in minor party representation.
Minor parties play a crucial role when they hold the 'balance of power' in the Senate. That means that a situation can occur, where neither of the two major political forces (the ALP or the LP/NP-Coalition) holds the majority of the seats and therefore depends on the minor party or independent senators to win a vote. In addition, the scenario has to be that the ALP and the Coalition vote against each other. In this case, the minor parties have a great deal of influence on making or changing policies. In her case study of the 1993 budget, Liz Young describes a range of possibilities the minor parties have. These reach from just blocking a bill to bargains for votes on issues to get some of their policies considered.
Now the question that is being asked is whether or not it is acceptable in a democracy for parties that gain only minor support to have such influence over policy output. In this case, the same argumentation patterns as in the general debate about the role of the Senate can be notified. The party in government at the time may say that it is undemocratic, pulling back on the responsible government-argument. The minor parties themselves see their role as defenders of the Checks and Balances and emphasize the liberal argument. Especially the Democrats emphasize their "self imposed, power-limiting etiquette", which includes the principle of not blocking supply, a refusal of cross-trading and a commitment to transparency in policy-making.
 Nick Economou: Australian Politics & Government, lecture at Monash University, Melbourne, 2000
 Harry Evans (ed.): Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 1999, on: www.aph.gov.au/senate/pubs/Html/httoc/ htm, ch 1.1
 Woodward, Dennis; Parkin, Andrew; Summers, John: Government, Politics, Power & Policy in Australia, 6th Edition, Melbourne: Longman, 1997, p. 38
 ibid p. 37
 Sharman, Campbell: The Senate, Small Parties and the Balance of Power, Politics Vol. 21, No. 2, Nov 1986
 Young, Liz: Minor Parties and the Legislative Process in the Australian Senate: A Study of the 1993 Budget, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 34, No. 1 1999, pp. 7-27
 "cross-trading" for a minor party means to vote with the government on one issue to reach a bargain on another issue not related with the first one
 Kernot, Cheryl: Balancing Acts - Wielding the Balance of Power, Australian Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 56, No. 2, June 1997, p. 33