Bartlett's Blog

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. This blog started in 2004 and reflects his own views, independent of any political party or organisation.

Time to restore an Upper House in Qld’s Parliament

Calls to bring back the Upper House – or Legislative Council – in Queensland’s Parliament appear with fairly regular frequency. Like every other state Upper House at the time, when Queensland’s Legislative Council voted to abolish itself back in 1921, all its members were appointed rather than elected – something which certainly needed addressing. However, every other state (eventually) dealt with this through the obvious mechanism of requiring members of the Upper House to be directly elected.

The absence of any form of check and balance over the Queensland government of the day – whether Labor or Coalition – has led to an entrenched anti-democratic culture in Queensland politics, with regular abuses of power by either side. An Upper House wouldn’t fix everything by any means, but it is amazing how quickly the attitude of a government changes when they need to negotiate with other people to get legislation passed. I saw this in reverse when I was in the Senate.

The vast majority of the time – due to its far more representative system of multi-member electorates elected via a proportional representation – no one party controls the Senate, and at least some degree of negotiation and transparency is required. I had the misfortune of being in the Senate when John Howard’s Coalition government managed the rare feat of winning control of the Senate in their own right.

Almost overnight, the level of consultation dropped to zero, and the interest in hearing anyone else’s point of view vanished along with it. It didn’t mean everyone in the Coalition immediately starting behaving in a more obnoxious. unfriendly manner, but it did mean there was less communication in general – for the fairly obvious pragmatic reason that they didn’t need to bother.

Of course, having control of the Senate also led directly to John Howard over-reaching and introducing his draconian, extreme Workchoices laws. Contrary to common opinion, this did not mean a more deregulated workplace. It actually introduced a whole lot more regulation, but it was all aimed at screwing over unions (and any business who decided they wanted to negotiate with them in a reasonable manner). Many of the problems with Workchoices could have been easily foreseen, but with no need to pay attention to alternative views in the Senate, these deeply flawed laws were rushed through with little scrutiny.

Of course, in Queensland where there is no Senate, or upper House, to scrutinise anything, governments over-reach with depressing regularity; not just with over the top legislation – such as their current attempt to distort the electoral law to suit the Coalition particularly and major parties in general – but also with greater politicisation of the public service, dubious spending decisions, and more.

A column in the Courier-Mail by Des Houghton – normally an arch-conservative flag waver for the LNP government – pointed to another recent proposal by Brisbane barrister Anthony Morris to bring back an Upper House – in this case to be called a Review Chamber. The column points to the many problems Queensland has endured over many decades with autocratic governments, much of which could at least be constrained with a built review mechanism.

Even though the Upper House was abolished just by an Act of Parliament, to bring one back requires a referendum. It’s often said that people will never vote for more politicians, but I think in this instance – with enough public support by people across the political spectrum – a referendum to put some checks and balances on our government would have a good chance of passing.

You can read the column by Des Houghton here –


6 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. JKUU

    “(Political) Power is best when it’s most widely distributed.” Among other things, this aphorism means that a bicameral legislature with a strong upper house is required. Under so-called responsible government, power is concentrated in the lower house as the center of the executive branch of government. An independent legislative chamber in the upper house holds this power accountable.

    Too long has Queensland been the Nebraska of Australia.

  2. While an upper house would be the best way to restore checks and balances are there other ways to improve the existing system? Changes to parliamentary procedure or strengthening of parliamentary committees could also be ways of introducing checks and balances and curbing the power of the executive.

  3. Rather than restoring the Legislative Council, as in NSW, I suggest the adoption of a voting system, such as MMP, as in NZ, may well be a better option.

    My sense of things is that once upper houses are abolished, they are not easily restored. I would be very much in favour, given recent history, of abolishing the Legislative Council in NSW,while seeking to avoid the problems of Queensland.

  4. Lorikeet

    Yes, it would be great to have an Upper House in the Queensland parliament, as something needs to be done about the undemocratic abuses of the Newman government.

    Only truly rusted-on Coalition supporters and those with little understanding of the Constitution think it is okay to clobber workers and bring in un-nuanced laws which are applied unequally.

    Only a few days ago, I was speaking with an officer of the AFP. She said she wants our children and adults to be well disciplined, but she doesn’t want any Queensland Police officers to take a bullet for Newman. I don’t know anyone who wants any of our young people joining Queensland Police with this despotic Premier on the seat of power. She wants “one punch” laws to be nuanced. I found we were in agreement on most things.

    Interestingly, I have also spoken with a member of a very large bikie gang who seems to think Campbell Newman’s ideas on law and order are okay.

    In one of the other Australian states, I’m sure there are moves afoot to remove the upper house. I saw something that suggested this on the news last week.

    It is my belief that the government will continue to manipulate the people in the direction of removing all upper houses of review, along with the state governments, leaving only powerless mini states (amalgamated councils) similar to those seen in former USSR communist bloc nations. A quick look at a map of Lithuania will show what I mean.

    I am also concerned that the ALP is now saying it will accept members who do not belong to unions. However this would certainly be in keeping with their lack of interest in workers’ rights.

  5. As a Senator, Andrew, you were a great asset to Australia. Please keep up your blog. Upper houses do seem to give voters a better chance of being heard and heeded. Because voters pay almost no attention to who they elect to a lower house, they tend to be ignored by government unless they are proactive. Reform of parliament is important, but reform by the electorate is also needed. Until residents take more interest in national and state affairs, corruption, unfairness and neglect will prevail as in the instances mentioned above. We invite everyone to join our Residents Roundtables to make broadly supported suggestions to MPs. Residents/voters working with MPs produce quite good results.Voterland is part of the FairGO / Votergrams Group that saw how willingly Andrew assisted Voters from all over Australia.

  6. paul walter

    Agree with all of various above..either a lower house voting system that reflects diversity or a bicameral unit that also breaks the monopoly.

    Our chance and Buckleys.

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