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 –


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