One event in the Senate has in the past week demonstrated that the Liberals learnt nothing from government and have taken it with them into opposition.
Nick Minchin, in what appears an appalling knowledge of precedent and tradition, last week convinced his colleagues not to offer a candidate for the position of Senate President.
Minchin convinced his colleagues that in handing the plum job to the Labor Party, the Liberal Party was reverting to the “held tradition” that the government of the day was entitled by right to the position. There is not and never has been such a practice, tradition or convention.
A contest for Presiding officer is still held in the House of Representatives in spite of the inevitable outcome in that Chamber.
Prior to the election of Democrat Senators, the Presidency of the Senate was held by the party which commanded a majority in the Senate in spite of the composition of the House of Representatives. During the period that the Democratic Labor Party held the balance of power in the Senate it followed the order of its election ballot preferences and supported the Coalition nominee.
The only practice which prevailed in years of yore when the Coalition held a majority was that of the Liberal Party providing the Presidency and the National Party providing the Deputy President.
Upon the arrival of the Democrats who controlled the balance of power, Senator Chipp as a matter of pragmatic internal politics supported the government for the Presidency and the Opposition for the Deputy Presidency.
This practice continued until the elevation to the Democrats’ leadership of the entirely forgettable Janet Powell who promised to support the late Mal Colston if he could persuade the Labor Party to allow him to stand for the Deputy Presidency against me. This the ALP did and Colston was elected.
With the happy departure of Powell from the Senate, the Democrats returned to Chipp’s practice and I was elected Deputy President in 1994.
In perhaps the moral nadir of contemporary Australian politics, Colston was again elected Deputy President in 1996; on this occasion with the contrivance of the Liberal Party who supported Colston against the official ALP nominee. The price was Colston supporting Howard’s privatization of Telstra.
Each of these incidental events occurred in circumstances where neither major party had a majority in the Senate.
Minchin’s notion that the government should have an inalienable claim to the Senate Presidency illuminates an altogether woeful knowledge and understanding of the role of the Senate. For those who have an understanding, care and more so, faith in the role of the Senate and the bi-cameral system, Minchin’s ignorance must be deeply troubling.
I know of no occasion where the major party with a majority of votes in the Senate has forfeited the Presidency to the government. It seems Minchin does not understand the difference between the Chamber of Government from which the government is formed and that of a House of Review.
Equally, I know of no other second chamber in Australian history where the Opposition has capitulated to the government and conceded the Presidency on the basis of an extraordinary assumption that the government is entitled to Preside over the House of Review.
The only caveat one might contemplate rests upon that of the Western Australian Legislative Council where in 1996 the Liberal and National Parties had an equal number of votes to those of the Labor Party and its fellow travelers’, the Greens and the Democrats.
The Western Australian Legislative Council does not provide for the President having either a deliberate or casting vote and the Liberal Government of the day offered the position to the Labor Party on the basis that had it assumed its right to the position it would have lost its majority in the chamber. The Labor Party declined to nominate a candidate and the Liberal Party accepted an obligation to fill the position.
If the Opposition is to view the Senate as the second chamber of government, there can be no intellectually honest argument in favour of a bi-cameral system. If an Upper House is to be little more than a mere shadow of the government’s lower house, a house to correct and amend accidental and incidental flaws in government legislation, what one might ponder is the value of its existence?
If Senator Minchin is to embrace the remarkable notion from Opposition that the Senate Chamber is to be a House of Government, it must follow that he casts aside as absurd, the composition and representation which the Senate provides.
Presumably, if Senator Minchin is to be honest with the electorate upon whom he relies for parliamentary representation, he will contemplate a referendum to abolish State representation from the Senate, fixed six year terms and the disproportionate representation it offers to the original States.
In the event, the Greens stood a candidate for the Presidency who attracted one more vote than the combined number of Green Senators. Presumably that vote came from either Senator Fielding or more likely, Senator Xenophon. The result showed that in all probability a Liberal nominee would have won the ballot.
Minchin’s view that the Senate is a government chamber reflects his attitude towards the Senate during the later part of the life of the Howard government when the committee system was dismembered and the process corrupted. The obscene behaviour of the government in allowing just one day for a Senate inquiry into the sale of Telstra reflected both the contempt and regard that the government had for Senate processes and procedures.
It was perhaps inevitable that the Howard government through its arrogant disregard for proper Senate legislative scrutiny would fall in part through its unamended toxic work choices legislation.
Noel Crichton-Browne is a former Liberal senator for WA.