"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.