“John Howard has placed the Senate on notice that his Government will use its looming majority from July 1 to drive through a new wave of reform,” writes Steve Lewis in The Australiantoday. “It’s a delicious prospect for a Government that has been frustrated over the years by the Opposition parties. But there’s a potential downside: the Senate risks becoming less democratic.”

There’s another downside, too – power going to the Government’s head. The tax debate is already out of control with expectations that are politically – or, worse, economically – impossible to meet. That’s a problem because it will look like weakness.

All of which makes Peter Costello’s comments to the Victorian Liberals over the weekend in support of four-year parliamentary terms awkward to explain. Is the Government biting off more than it can chew?

This sort of agenda requires more than control of both Houses. It would need a referendum. With the economy going wobbly, with the expectations the Government is already creating, surely risking a referendum on anything is the last thing the prime minister – or the would-be prime minister – wants. How many quotes against four-year terms from John Howard from the 1988 referendum must the Opposition be sitting on?

These are interesting times for the Government – as in the “may you live in interesting times” Chinese curse. They cannot risk loss of face.

PS: A more practical piece of electoral reform came up at the Victorian Liberals meeting over the weekend (reported in The Age), a motion calling on the prime minister to use the party’s Senate majority from July to increase the amount of money that can be donated anonymously to political parties from $1,500 to $5,000. That’s doable. Is it on the agenda and was this its first public outing?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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