Senator Bartlett defends the independence of the Senate.

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (8.04 p.m.)–It is a bit disingenuous of Senator Coonan to suggest that this is not an urgent matter; that, somehow or other, we should think that her proposals are just some idle things raised for us to ponder in our spare moments; and that, when we are in this place, we should just get on with some of the legislative proposals that the government and others have put forward.

The trouble is that, clearly, Senator Coonan's proposal is not the first, but in fact only the latest, in a very long line of similar proposals from coalition members over the last three or so years. At various strategic times, they have floated such proposals to undermine and threaten to gut the ability of the Senate to keep a check on the executive, on the government. And these proposals tend to coincide with times during which the government is trying to press through important pieces of legislation which it knows it does not have majority community support for.
There is no clearer indication of the fact that the government does not have majority community support for its economic program than the fact that it received just 37.7 per cent, less than 38 per cent, of the vote in the Senate at the last federal election. As Malcolm MacKerras pointed out at a seminar on the weekend, that is actually the worst ever result for conservative parties in the Senate in the history of federation. So the coalition–on the basis of it getting its worst ever result from the Australian people voting for members of the house of review–is trying to argue some sort of mandate to push through whatever it desires, without any sort of check at all, any sort of consultation, any form of consideration of alternative viewpoints.

It is no wonder that, when the coalition is trying to push through a program from such a completely tenuous position, suggestions such as this are raised to try to provide a smokescreen to draw attention away from its own incredibly weak position. Senator Coonan is not the first from the coalition to argue such suggestions–to gut the Senate and try to reduce its ability to be representative of the views of the Australian people. And these sorts of suggestions always come out at times such as this.

The simple fact is that under a proportional system–and the Senate, whilst not being perfectly proportional, is certainly well and truly in advance of the House of Representatives in being representative and proportional of the Australian public's views–if a party gets a majority of the vote from the public, if they have majority support from the public, they will get a majority of the seats. Malcolm Fraser proved that back in the seventies. The other simple fact is that it is very rare for any party to get the majority of the vote from the public, particularly in the Senate, because the public knows that the government needs the parliament to keep a check on what it is doing. That is, after all, what the parliament is meant to do.

The parliament is there to legislate. The government or the executive is there to propose legislation–two very fundamentally different roles that together with the judiciary underpin our entire system of government. That is why this is an urgent matter. It is not just some idle ponderings of an apparently high ranking and up-and-coming coalition member–so I read in the press. It is actually a proposal that strikes at the very heart of our system of government. I do not think you get anything more serious or more urgent than that. Our entire system of democracy as Australia was established, the principles of the constitution that the coalition are supposedly sworn to uphold and believe are greater defenders of than the rest of us, are being blown apart by proposals such as that which Senator Coonan puts forward. It is a deliberate attempt to try to disenfranchise significant sections of the Australian community to make their vote worth less than those people who do the so-called right thing and vote for the major parties.

It is pretty obvious what the motive of Senator Coonan and the coalition is in raising these sorts of issues whenever there is a significant piece of legislation coming forward. They have managed to get the orchestrated media chorus behind them, saying that the Senate should get out of the way, the parliament should get out of the way and let the government govern. Unfortunately, the government is still able to govern. I wish they would not do some of the things they are doing. The parliament is here to legislate, and the government should get out of the road and let the parliament do its job.

It is not surprising but nonetheless worth pointing out that suggestions such as this from the coalition were not raised when the Democratic Labor Party held the balance of power and supported the coalition. There was no attack from the coalition then, suggesting that they were unrepresentative and had undue power for a minority party. It is not surprising given the role that party played. It shows the hollowness of proposals such as these.

It is worth pointing out again that the previous parliament passed 427 pieces of legislation for the Howard government and I believe opposed only two bills. Ninety-nine per cent in anyone's language is not a bad average. Not many things can be said to have remained the same since Federation. In a fast changing world, the role and function of the Australian Senate, in particular, as a house of review and as an important house of the parliament keeping a check on the operations of government, endures.

There is one very good reason why the coalition or, for that matter, the ALP when in government will never have to worry about an obstructive Senate operating in a destructive way–the single occasion that it has done so was the well documented case of 1975–and that is because the Democrats have pledged never to block supply to an elected government. We believe it is important to be responsible, and we have made proposals many times to ensure that the Senate can operate in that way–well back to former Senator Michael Macklin in the 1980s proposing legislation to clarify the Senate's role to ensure that it does not obstruct the government in such a basic way.

On such a basic matter as this, it is clearly and absolutely urgent that the Senate expresses its concern that any member of the coalition can freely float something that would blow apart the fundamentals of our parliamentary democracy and the system of government and that there be not a single voice of concern raised by their parliamentary colleagues in the coalition. (Time expired)

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