The two party tyranny is about to change leadership. Kevin Rudd is likely the next prime minister but it would be naive to expect that major structural changes are about to happen or that climate change, nuclear energy and yellow cake exports will be dealt with in an effective way.

There is little in the platform of the ALP that provides a clear indication that major reforms can be expected. However, many voters believe that we need to start talking about major changes, especially system changes, as well as independence in foreign policy. A circuit breaker is badly needed.

We need to get the major parties out of the Senate, to put it bluntly.

More and more it seems that for this to happen a broad-based reformist Opposition bloc needs to emerge in the Senate. It is futile, given the electoral system for the House of Representatives, to form a new party and contest the election at that level. However, the Senate is elected on the basis of proportional representation, which provides better chances for minor parties and Independents.

In a half Senate election a quota of 14.7% of the vote (after preferences) secures a Senate position. The constitutional position of the Senate is laid down in Section 53 of The Constitution, the relevant part of which reads as follows:

“Except as provided in this section, the Senate shall have equal power with the House of Representatives in respect of all proposed laws”, the qualification being that “the Senate may not amend any proposed law so as to increase any proposed charge or burden to the people.”

This presents an enormous potential power in the Australian Parliamentary system, which has been left largely untapped except that minor parties and Independents have been able, at least until the 2004 federal election, to capture the balance of power, which has denied governments the ability to use the Senate as a Rubberstamp.

Recapturing the balance of power is one thing, undoubtedly very important, as the excellent record of Senate activity has shown. But a bloc of progressive minor parties and Independents could form an effective Opposition to the two-party hegemony in the House of Representatives. For that to happen the nexus between the two votes of major party voters, one for the House of Representatives and the other for the Senate, needs to be broken. Really, why should major party voters continue to vote in the Senate as instructed by these parties?

Each major party naturally favours a Rubberstamp Senate but in the Winners-take-all two-party culture a powerless Senate is mostly bad news. Voters can do much better than voting for two or three major party Senate candidates, appointed by their executives to the number one, two and three positions. Voters are fully entitled to exercise their Senate vote independently.

One would think that Australian voters really do not want a Rubberstamp Senate again, no matter which major party wins the House of Representatives election. In fact some would want the Senate to become something akin to a de facto Opposition movement to the two-party tyranny. One could go further still: major institutional and constitutional reforms could be initiated by a strong independent Senate in which the major parties became minor parties.

Politically, Australia is caught in a vicious circle. An ordinary election doesn’t move the country away from it because if there is a change of Government it represents the shift from Tweedledum to Tweedledee as has been observed by many commentators for the last 30 years.

In this article we cannot specify how and what group or party should start a campaign to inform the voting public about their Senate vote. Perhaps a special Senate Alliance Party needs to address this. It’s hard to underestimate the significance of breaking the nexus between a voter’s House of Representatives vote and his/her Senate vote.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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