13 February 2009

Prime Minister gets a hard lesson on the house of review

The initial defeat of the Rudd Labor government's massive economic stimulus package in the Senate would have taken many by surprise. The Prime Minister thought none of the crossbench senators would dare block the bill if he dangled a $950 cheque in front of millions of Australians. After the government refused to support Senator Nick Xenophon's amendments for economic and environmental assistance to the Murray-Darling Basin, he joined with the Coalition to block the bill. The bill was re-introduced into the House of Representatives and finally passed by both houses after the government negotiated a compromise with Xenophon.

As with other poor legislation that has been thrown out by the Senate, Rudd minimises the embarrassment by pinning the blame solely on the Coalition. The fact is that with the current composition of the Senate, the Coalition needs at least one other Senator to vote against a bill for it to be defeated.

Rudd's attitude, or at least the conception that he is trying to impart on voters, is that the passage of a bill through the Senate is just a formality, as is clearly evident by the figure of speech he used when he told Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull to "get out of the road" after he announced that he would not support the stimulus package. The reality is that when a bill is amended or rejected by the Senate, it is serving its intended purpose. It is a house of review and provides checks and balances that form a critical part of our democracy.

The role of the Senate in Australian democracy

The Australian Parliament is based on a British Westminster system, but the Senate was inspired by the Senate of Congress in the United States, which is a federation of colonies just like Australia. The US model of the upper chamber was chosen because it provides equal representation of all states regardless of population. Thus, it protects smaller states such as Tasmania and South Australia from dominance by New South Wales and Victoria. Presently, there are 12 senators for each state and 2 for the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory.

The Senate also plays a crucial role in providing a more inclusive representation of a broad range of political views because members are elected via proportional representation. Under this system of voting, a candidate is elected if the number of votes they receive meets a minimum quota, which is calculated by dividing the number of formal votes by one more than the number of seats being contested and then adding one to this result. Candidates receiving a number of votes exceeding the quota have their surplus votes distributed to other candidates based on their electors' preferences. The process is repeated for the remaining candidates using the transferred votes. If unallocated seats remain after this process, then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their votes are transferred to the other candidates based on preferences. The number of seats won by a political party is proportional to their share of the vote and as a consequence small parties such as the Australian Greens and Family First are able to win seats in the Senate.

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