JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Senate is hardly unrepresentative swill

"The Senate is intimately representative of Australians in a number of ways."

"The Senate is intimately representative of Australians in a number of ways." Photo: Andrew Meares

Depending on what time you read this, Western Australia may or may not have formally placed the finishing touches on the Abbott government’s comedy support act due to open in July, otherwise known as The Senate.

Whatever the result, it seems quite certain that the Red Chamber is going to come under some heavy fire in the next few years, so I would like to get in early with a defence of the 76 men and women Paul Keating once dismissed as “unrepresentative swill”.

That remark is just not fair. The Senate is intimately representative of Australians in a number of ways.

For example: voting for the Senate is the point at which our system of representative democracy gives glorious voice to the Australian sense of humour. Everything about the Senate ballot paper is hilarious: its rippling expanse, its novelty candidates, the sight-gag plastic AEC magnifying glass supplied in some states in the interests of the bewildered.

Thus prepared for comedy, is it any wonder, given our national character, that - having dispatched the serious business of electing one party or other to form a majority in the House of Representatives - we turn to the Senate paper in chuckling search of a balance-of-power equation that would most traumatise our new government?

When we made John Howard prime minister in 1996, we made sure we booby-trapped the upper house with a nightmarish array of Greens, Democrats and disaffected former Labor senators with a horrid tendency towards independence of thought.

In 1998, we let him have his GST but made sure there were enough Democrats in the Senate to ensure that he would spend six months in purgatory, arguing about the difference between chicken nuggets served hot or cold and whether lavosh was a bread or a biscuit. In 2001, we threw a little One Nation into the mix (hat tip: Queensland). And in 2004, we planted the greatest banana skin of all time; we gave John Howard control of the Senate, which was his cue to go and hang himself with WorkChoices, and all that lovely rope.

To Kevin Rudd, in 2007, we delivered a bunch of Greens who would not vote for his green agenda, plus Steve Fielding, a man with 15 brothers and sisters, who enjoyed dressing up as a soft-drink bottle.

The Senate is a national hazing ritual we inflict on new prime ministers. And this one is the best yet; knowing Tony Abbott’s fondness for extreme sports, we’ve served up a Senate that amounts to a modern pentathlon of prankery. There’s the motorist guy who doesn’t speak. There’s the Palmer people, who don’t speak until they’ve spoken to Clive. There’s Nick Xenophon, whom you know. There’s the Family First guy, whom you don’t. There’s the chap from the Democratic Labour Party – “Putting the ‘You’ Back Into Labour!”

There’s the Liberal Democrats guy from NSW, who got elected only because the Liberal Democrats drew the number-one spot on the bedsheet ballot paper and everybody got him confused with the Liberals, which now makes him the official Senate representative of Liberal voters who can’t read.

Not only is the Senate closely representative of our national sense of humour, and our love of persecuting the authority figures in our lives, it also represents our deep recognition that life is sometimes random.

But the way the Senate operates is also a rather faithful representation of how decisions are made in ordinary Australian life. Now, I know governments often find the Senate annoying, with its fusty ways and its constant procrastination and its wont – just as the legislative backlog reaches the Code Orange Alert stage – to digress into a series of speeches about the habitat of the Lesser Beakless Grass Parrot or similar.

And negotiations with Senate crossbenchers – that interminable game of bunnies-in-a-basket, when you get one in, then two, then five, and then you turn around and realise that the first one’s hopped out again and has lolloped off in search of more lettuce – can be horribly frustrating.

But have a look at any workplace. Any household. That’s how we make decisions! All group deliberations start off with a sensible plan, which is then systematically ruined by a minority of well-meaning lunatics whom the rest of the group are too polite or lazy to bind and gag. THAT IS HOW WE DO THINGS IN AUSTRALIA.

And if – as a result of this new Senate – we end up with a direct action carbon emissions reduction plan that balances generous incentives to the fledgling Australian animatronic dinosaur industry with significant carve-outs for the high-adrenaline end of the recreational motor sports community, plus does something nominal about poker machines, then we have only ourselves to blame.

Maddening, bizarre and popcorn-munchingly compelling the Senate may be. But unrepresentative it most certainly is not.

@annabelcrabb

10 comments

  • Annabel, thank you. That is the best summary of the Australian Senate I have ever read. It should be made compulsory reading for all political science students.

    Commenter
    Florence
    Location
    Firenze
    Date and time
    April 06, 2014, 7:31AM
    • So the senate will make them do some work. Good.

      I guess it's democracy in action, our forefathers must have know that it is vital to install an emergency switch on the run away train we call the House of Representatives.

      Btw, Lesser Beakless Grass Parrots have rights too you know.

      Commenter
      Rainer the cabbie
      Location
      The Big Smoke
      Date and time
      April 06, 2014, 7:35AM
      • Love your analysis, Annabelle. Just what my Sunday Am needed.

        Commenter
        Willis r Wasbe
        Location
        bega
        Date and time
        April 06, 2014, 8:56AM
        • Have to agree, the more variety we have in the senate the more integrity we get in decision making (in theory), I would even go one further and open the senate up to all but political parties, I think it was either Meg Lees or Cheryl Kernot got it right about keeping the bastards honest

          Commenter
          Blowie
          Location
          Kiama
          Date and time
          April 06, 2014, 9:07AM
          • The Senate, God love it, is the only thing stopping Abbott from changing Australia into Russia. Not communist Russia, but Mad Hatter Russia, filled with oligarchs of obscene wealth, and a leader who looks (and sounds) surprisingly like Abbott, except he likes shooting bears, to remind Russians that he has a gun (the military) and will use it, too.

            Abbott has similarly shown us that he has a gun, and also demonstrated that the truth often gets in the way of democracy. Certainly transparency is anti-democratic.

            So, God bless the Senate mess. We might laugh at its ineptness, its lack of education, its awful habit of appearing stubborn and unhelpful in the face of razor gangs and Abbott's threat to take a baseball bat to the poor if he can't give money to the rich.

            Commenter
            Axis
            Date and time
            April 06, 2014, 9:24AM
            • Onya, Annabel. One of your best!

              Commenter
              jacktack
              Date and time
              April 06, 2014, 9:26AM
              • Where is this missing things called the 'vibe'? apparently it is a new green thingy me bob but perhaps it's extinct already? let's hope it is as it wasn't all it was made out to be.

                Commenter
                enough is enough
                Date and time
                April 06, 2014, 9:32AM
                • ... a far more articulate and accurate assesment of the senate than poor old Paul K could ever have constructed . ( He of withering abusive name calling ... of course found the senate a problem because it was unrepresentative of HIM ! )...... but out of all this surely we must all see that THE SY3TEM IS BROKEN ....and needs fixing ... where is the statesman who will do this ? (70+ fruitcake candidates on a bedsheet ballot paper ( and this in the 2nd or 3rd decade of the Computer age ! ) all hoping to get their noses in the trough via a ridiculously outmoded system of preferences ... there is a place to start ! )

                  Commenter
                  DGfan
                  Date and time
                  April 06, 2014, 10:01AM
                  • You may well be right. For all it's annoyances, those in the Senate do provide a broad cross spectrum of Australian society and all it's foils and psychosis.

                    Commenter
                    rob1966
                    Location
                    Sydney
                    Date and time
                    April 06, 2014, 10:59AM
                    • People getting elected with roughly 0% of the vote strikes me as decidedly unrepresentative.

                      That they did so is a product of the arcane Senate voting system and was not readily foreseeable except as a hypothetical possibility resulting from an improbable mathematical pattern of votes that only a handful of hard core election analysts would ever contemplate. Accordingly, your claim that "we have only ourselves to blame" seems quite a stretch.

                      Commenter
                      JohnC
                      Date and time
                      April 06, 2014, 2:32PM
                      Comments are now closed
                      Featured advertisers

                      Special offers

                      Credit card, savings and loan rates by Mozo