What are the key differences between the House of Representatives and the Senate, and does the latter enhance or curtail democracy?
The upper and lower houses of Australia’s federal bicameral parliament are referred to as the Senate and the House of Representatives respectively. The Senate is generally viewed as an effective mechanism “…to protect the citizenry from the excesses of elected governments” (Miragliotta, Errington & Barry 2013, p.82). It is on par with the House of Reps in that Senators are directly elected and undergo a different electoral method to the House of Reps, making it “…one of the most powerful second chambers currently in existence” (p. 83).
There have been arguments that the Senate wields too much power, that Senators seek to preserve the priorities of the parties they represent, and that the equal representation of the states by Senators, irrespective of the population, has resulted in a perceived inequality between voters by some in the Senate (p.84). However, as the Senate’s objective is to play a dual function – as both a states’ house and a house of review – this argument is flawed.
I believe that bicameralism is the best way to place the government of the day under scrutiny. If representation in the Senate is balanced and further analysis is performed on bill proposals, Senators can negotiate with government to massage and improve proposed legislation before it passes the Senate and is enacted. The amplified presence of minor parties and independents in the Senate also enables further enquiry, especially since, in my opinion, it is increasingly difficult to spot the difference between the two major parties in Australia.
Even though the major parties tend to argue that they have been popularly elected “…and should be entitled to exercise its mandate without instruction and obfuscation” (p. 87), I ask the following question regarding the government that is currently representing Australia: What if such a “popular” mandate was based on lies to get a government elected? I will refer to the current Abbott government as an example in this instance. It has been well documented that the Australian Liberal Party leader promised “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS” (Hands off our ABC, 2013). I know which parliamentary system I would rather have based on this example alone… the bicameral system could provide a highly worthwhile insurance model… a fail-safe, if you will. Double dissolution, anyone?
Hands off our ABC 2013, Mr Abbott’s “No Cuts” Election Commitment, 4 December, viewed 29 August 2015, <https://youtu.be/VN-hbWVXsyE>.
MIRAGLIOTTA, N., ERRINGTON, W. & BARRY, N. 2013. The Australian political system in action, South Melbourne, Vic., Oxford University Press.