The Victorian Upper House is a complete joke desperately in need of reform and even luminaries such as Jeff Kennett’s former speechwriter Kevin Balshaw are prepared to say so.

More importantly, nor does a well-intentioned commitment to reform promise answers to the far broader and deep-seated problems of a democratic structure and system that remain fossilised in a colonial ice-age.

Mind you, this could be a degree on the cynical side. This Year of Our Lord 2002 may prove a landmark for Victorian democracy, depending on whether you still believe in Santa Claus.

The Constitutional Commission that is to hand down its report on reform of the Constitution and the Upper House sometime in the next few months is headed by an impartial figure in the form of Alan John Hunt, a member of the Upper House for a mere 31 years and President of the House from 1988 up to his retirement in 1992. It’s probably unfortunate he didn’t crack a knighthood before John Cain towelled the Liberals in 1982 that would have capped it off perfectly. His son Greg Hunt is Peter Reith’s replacement in the seat of Flinders.

But there are other factors for one, the intense public interest on the part of 10% of Victorians in the outcome of the inquiry. The other 90% either don’t know the Upper House exists or what it does and are unable to apply a moniker to Whatsisname, their local member. Secondly, given the propensity of the Bracks regime to hold inquiries, commissions, reviews, reviews of reviews, consultations, evaluations, assessments and consultations, there is every likelihood the findings of the Constitutional Commission will be sent to a further ministerial or departmental review, or both, and/or remain open to further public submissions for another five years, to be followed by another formal inquiry complete with public hearings. Thirdly, the Libs and Nats retain an overwhelming majority in the Upper House, a last vestige of power, a resource of people who are unknown to their electorates, serving interminable (eight-year) sentences er, terms and with time on their hands to do the shit work of reading all the Freedom of Information documents.

Bracks, in any event, has signalled he wants electoral reform of the Upper House to “enable the Legislative Council to operate effectively as a genuine House of Review”. He is after a kind of proportional representation system and shorter terms that combined would give Labor its best hope in decades of gaining control of this lofty chamber. In other words, it’s a political solution, but one around which the Libs and Nats will coalesce and give the boot.

The only hope for Bracks is to take constitutional reform to the people as a referendum at the next election, but I doubt the light has clicked on that possibility for him as yet. And on the evidence that we don’t give a damn anyway, 90% of electors will vote informal or tick the Don’t Know box.

That’s all disappointing in light of Australia as a bastion of democracy that is as open and equal as you’ll find anywhere. But it is time to move on.

The Upper House and the State Constitution are irrelevant to the day-to-day lives and aspirations of Victorians. Moreover, they are passive retardants to Victoria’s future economic and social advancement. One needs to be scrapped; the other to undergo fundamental change.

The Premier’s new vision will be somewhat less than splendid unless he is bold enough for these head-on challenges. The commission’s terms of reference do not extend to reform of the Constitution itself, except as it relates to the Upper House. The outcome, in any event, is virtually a foregone conclusion entrenched interests will ensure the commission’s findings do no more than gather dust in the Parliamentary Papers Office.

Take a look in The Old Curiosity Shop behind the pillars at the top end of Bourke Street, as groups of schoolchildren and the occasional interested citizen do, and note that beyond the tiled vestibule the carpet to the left, where the Legislative Assembly sits, is green and that to the right the red carpet leads to the chamber of the Legislative Council.

Here is where, as the Parliament web site acknowledges, the Legislative Council the House of Review as it was originally intended was by comparison with the Assembly “more patrician, less democratic, indeed a bastion of wealth and privilege”. As late as 1950 the Council introduced universal manhood suffrage and abolished property qualifications for electors to align itself with a situation that had existed in the Assembly since 1857.

Etched in the tiles on the floor of the parliamentary vestibule is the quote from Proverbs 11:14, “Where no counsel is, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” Only by implication can we infer wisdom. The people have good reason to fear their counsellors live by the rule of safety in numbers and, after all, when you have the numbers in politics, what else matters?

Deputy Premier, John Thwaites, told a forum in Melbourne last year: “We came to government with a strong belief in democracy and open government.” But if Victoria is to portray itself as a vibrant, modern, forward and outward looking corner of the world, our democracy will require drastic remedial surgery rather than rhetoric.

The Upper House, quite aside from the situation that it offers members the sinecure of eight-year terms without having to face the voters, throughout its history has not been a house of review, but one of obstruction. Politically, it has come to serve a duplicate role to that of the Lower House, except that no one takes the slightest bit of notice.

Of Parliament’s much vaunted committee structure, there are seven Joint Investigatory Committees comprising members of both the Lower and Upper Houses. Only the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee and Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee could be said to fulfil worthwhile roles. Two Select Committees comprise only Council members Economic Development, which has an ongoing role, and a special committee that has been looking into the merits of a commercial development involving the Frankston City Council.

Among the others, the Road Safety Committee continues to conduct interminable inquiries into factors for which the answers are already on the table. Despite the policy priorities of successive governments, none of the committees is looking into issues like drug problems, gambling, unemployment, poverty, people’s lifestyle needs or, as a matter of some importance to our future, what it takes to create a global knowledge economy.

Moreover, the committee members MPs who already are paid salaries, office and staffing costs, electorate allowances and more than generous superannuation contributions get paid an attendance fee (yes, paid) for every day they turn up at a committee meeting or hearing. The Upper House itself doesn’t come cheap. Of Parliament’s Budget allocation of $102 million for 2002-03, the Upper House will cost $9.6 million to run, and that’s not counting all the salaries and on-costs for its 44 unknown members.

Let the Upper House therefore be judged on its history and lack of accountability.

As to the Constitution, it remains an Act of the Victorian Parliament, subject to change at the whim of politicians and not the will of the people. Parliament’s ability to preclude recourse to the Supreme Court is a prime case in point, and the advent of the Grand Prix/redevelopment of Albert Park is a prime example.

The Constitution’s preamble is legalistic. It contains no honorable sentiments about Victoria’s identity or its place in the world, and makes no mention whatever of our indigenous people.

The way to make amends is open and straightforward for a government of the people to redefine the Constitution with a preamble containing a visionary statement that resonates with Victorians and their dreams for the future and acknowledges the prior occupation of the indigenous people. A constitution that is popularly approved by referendum and requires a referendum to change it.

But this is a challenge that faces all the States. All have constitutions that are outdated acts of their respective parliaments. It presents the opportunity for the States to collaborate in a nation leading and nation binding exercise to create a uniform set of democratic constitutions, even allowing latitude for each to reflect its own circumstances and aspirations.

Maybe then we could find ourselves in a situation in which a meaningful and definitive debate could be held on Australia’s democracy, and which just might foster the will for genuine reform.

Kevin Balshaw can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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