I recognise that some of these suggestions require
constitutional reform. I also acknowledge the difficulty
of achieving constitutional reform in Australia. Very few
referendums on constitutional reform have been successful
in Australia. However I will put the ideas out there.
Senate - The Issues
The Senate in Australia is meant to operate as the house
of review, reviewing legislation that has been passed by
the House of Representative prior to accepting or
rejecting or proposing amendments to the legislation.
However there are various factors that mean that the
Senate is does not operate well in performing this
legislation review function.
The Senate was originally set up at the time of Federation
as the State's house to get the smaller states to agree to
join the Federation - to overcome their fear of being
swamped by the larger more populous States. Consequently
each State has been allocated 12 Senators (currently -
lesser numbers in earlier times), and the two mainland
territories 2 Senators, regardless of their population.
This means that Tasmania with a population
of 0.5 million has the same number of Senators as Victoria
with a population of 6.2 million. Because of this
unintentional "gerrymandering" the Senate does not
conform to the democratic principle of one vote one value.
It is a historical anachronism and for this reason alone
it needs reform.
There are three further issues that limit the Senate from
performing its function as a house of review:
- The Senate is still dominated by the same parties that
dominate the lower house - with a few more minor party
politicians thrown in. Consequently it is unlikely that
a Senator from the party that is in majority in the
lower house is going to vote against a piece of
legislation that their party in the lower house has
supported. Similarly for Senators in the opposition
party - they will not support legislation their lower
house colleagues do not support. So a large proportion
of the people in the Senate are not actually carrying
out any real legislation review - mainly towing the
- Because there are 12 Senators allocated for each State
it gives people from minor parties a greater opportunity
to be elected to the Senate. Consequently the current
(2020) Senate has 35 members from the Government, 26
from the Opposition and 15 from minor parties and
independents (inc. 9 Greens and 1 independent - 19.7% of
total members). (This compares to the House of
Representatives - 77 Government, 68 Opposition and 6
Minor party or independent - 4% for total members.)
Depending on how the numbers fall this can give the
minor parties a huge amount of power. Sometimes a minor
party Senator can use their position to do deals on
which legislation they will agree to based not on the
merits of the legislation being voted on but on what
side deal they can make to extract some other benefit
for their State or party.
If the Government party actually holds a majority of the
seats in the Senate - which happens rarely - the
Government has unfettered capacity to pass whatever
legislation that has passed the lower house that it
wants - without review. The Government Senate member are
not going to vote against their lower house colleagues.
- Recent elections have shown that the Senate voting
system is open to manipulation that can see a person who
gets few direct votes (No. 1 votes) may be elected due
to deals on preferences amongst the smaller parties.
This is only possible due to the "above the line" voting
system (for more detail see Proposal 1 below) and the
effectively hidden preference flows resulting from that
The way the Senate is set up at the moment it is a house
of politics and not a house of review.
However one of the functions of the Senate is to establish
committees to conduct hearings to examine the government's
budget and operations. These committees do carryout proper
review work, holding the Government administration and the
public service/servants to account. The Senate committee
process is worthwhile and needs to continue into the
future under the same or very similar rules.
These are the issues in outline. However the idea of a
house of review that does genuinely review legislation is
worthwhile as a brake on the possible excesses of
Government. It is just a matter of how this is achieved.
I will suggest a number of approaches to reform. If
decided they were worthwhile how achievable they actually
are is another matter.
Proposal 1 - Changes to the Senate Voting System
One of the issues with the current voting system is the
size of the voting sheet and how voter preferences are
Currently a voter for the Senate has the option of voting
"above the line" or "below the line". If voting "above the
line" the voter just needs to put the number "1" in the
box for their first preference party. The second, third,
forth etc preferences associated with that vote will be
allocated according to the preferences chosen by the party
that received the "1" vote. How those preferences are
allocated is not at all transparent. If the voter wants to
know where the preferences from their vote will flow they
have to look it up on a website before they go to the
polling station. In effect the preferences are no longer
the voterís preferences but are given away by the voter to
the party that receives their number 1 vote. This concerns
The other option is to vote "below the line". For this
voting the voter has to number all candidate boxes below
the line. In the case of Victoria at the last Federal
election the voter has to number the candidates from 1 to
76 (from memory). If an error is made you have to start
again. I understand that only between 5 and 10 percent of
voters vote "below the line". With an increased number of
candidates possible for the larger states under Proposal 2
the voter would have to number many more boxes, making the
voting "below the line" option even more difficult.
The fix for this is quite simple. Voters should be able
to vote "above the line" however they should be able to
number the boxes above the line sequentially in accordance
with their preferences for the parties listed. And if they
stop at say 5 or 10 that should not invalidate their vote
as their intention is clear (though this may impact on the
calculation of "quota" under the voting system). The
voters should be able to vote by a combination of "above
the line" and "below the line" votes if they want to so
long as their voting intention is clear.
Proposal 1b - Another simpler approach may be to
just require the voter to vote "1" for a single party. The
party would then be allocated Senators in accordance with
the percentage of "1" votes they get. If the party gets
40% of the vote they get 40% of the Senators, if the party
gets 12% of the vote they get 12% of the Senators, etc.
This could be State based (with or without Proposal 2) or
nationwide. Very simple. However the value of some
people's vote will be lost if they vote for a small party
that does not get sufficient numbers to get a Senator
elected. Their second preference would not be known and
would not flow on.
The function of the Senate will be the same -
running the Senate committee process and reviewing and
voting on legislation.
Proposal 2 - Remove the Gerrymander
The number of Senators allocated to each State should be
proportional to their population. Under this proposal if
Tasmania has three Senators Victoria would be entitled to
36 Senators. This would be a boon to the smaller parties
that would have a much higher chance of getting elected to
the Senate in the larger states. It would also mean that
the Senate would more accurately reflect the number of
votes that each party received statewide/countrywide -
much better than the House of Representatives.
For such a system to be feasible (certainly in the larger
states) reform of the voting system as outlined in
Proposal 1 would be necessary.
I would expect that such a reform would be vigorously
opposed by the two major political parties - and the
Proposal 3 - Secret Voting
To improve the effectiveness of the Senate's legislative
review function how the Senators vote on each piece of
legislation should be secret. They would effectively have
a conscience vote on each piece of legislation. It would
be illegal for their party or anyone else to require them
to disclose how they vote. The obvious argument against
this is that the voters have a right to know how their
elected member votes. Countering this is that at least it
would be a more genuine review process.
Again the larger parties would undoubtedly vote against
Proposal 4 - Review by Appointed Members
There are a number of different ways that appointed
members could be used to review legislation.
Let me address one argument that is sure to be made
against any proposal to use appointed members - "but the
appointed members are not democratically elected". You're
right, they are not. As pointed out earlier look at the
way the current Senate is elected - it is undemocratic -
if by democratic you mean one vote one value. Tasmania
gets one Senator for every 41,700 electors. Victoria gets
one Senator for every 517,000 electors (2020). Look at the
House of Representatives. It clearly does not
proportionally reflect the community's vote for the minor
parties*. If it did the Greens would have many more lower
house Parliamentarians. We have even had occasions when
the party that achieved the majority of votes across the
country did not win Government. (It happens infrequently
in Australia - unlike in the USA. When it happens it is
undesirable and really should be addressed too.)
(*In the case of the House of Representatives
there are benefits to stable Government for the house to
be dominated by the two major parties provided there are
adequate checks and balances in place. And because of the
preferential voting system the voters for minor parties
are still getting a say in the process by their
preferential vote flow. Imagine the situation where there
are 4 or 5 equally sized parties in the house. There would
have to be coalitions made to be able to form government.
Coalitions of genuinely separate parties can break apart
more easily leading to the collapse of the Government.
However that said there also has to be a place in the
political process where the smaller parties, and their
voters, can be given representation and a voice. In our
system of Government that place is predominantly the
Senate, regardless that it is imperfect in this function
Our system has many undemocratic aspects. I don't think
this proposal is as problematic as some of these other
I now will outline the method that appointed members could
be selected. And then how they could be used.
The appointed members would Australian citizens from the
general community with guidelines for appointment:
- The number from each state will be proportional to the
population of the state;
- The number from country and metropolitan regions would
also be proportional to population
- Male / female proportion shall be 50:50 (plus or minus
- The ages of the members will be from 30 to 75.
The total number would be say 400 (to be decided). The
reason for so many is that the bigger the number the more
likely they are to being a representative sample of the
community. As they don't have to vote on every piece of
legislation we need to ensure that enough are available to
Within the guidelines people from the community would be
invited at random to become an appointed member. The
duties to be undertaken and commitment required would be
explained to them in detail - the good and the bad. It
would be up to them to decide whether or not to accept the
appointment. If accepted they would be appointed for a
year, with possible extensions up to three years. At least
a third of appointed members would change over each year.
(They will be able to withdraw earlier if they want so
long as some notice is given. On going appointment may be
assessed in accordance with the appointed member's
participation and defined aspects of performance and also
It is analogous to how the jury system impounds people
from the community to sit on juries - except that it would
not be compulsory.
Their primary function is the review and voting on
legislation from the House of Representatives. However the
way they could be used in the review process could vary. I
suggest two distinct approaches - Proposals 4a and 4b
Proposal 4a - Separate House of Review
Legislation would be debated and passed in the lower
house, in accordance with current practice. It would then
be sent to the upper house for review. In the upper house
the legislation would be voted on by the elected members.
If it passes that is fine their is no further review.
However if it is blocked the Government would have the
option of sending the legislation to the third house - the
house of appointed members. They could elect to pass it.
It would provide another avenue for Government to bypass
an obstructionist Senate - if the legislation is
considered worthwhile by the appointed members. Opposition
parties do not just consider legislation on its merits, on
whether it is of benefit to the country. It could be the
case that they consider the legislation of benefit to the
country but will still vote against it because of
perceived political benefits to their party's re-election
prospects from the obstruction of the government (this is
one of the reasons politics has such a bad reputation).
The appointed members would not be considering the
politics of the process, only the merits of the
legislation and perhaps whether the government has a
mandate for it from the last election.
The operations and the information provided to the
appointed members would be similar to aspects detailed in
Proposal 4b - so I won't repeat them here.
Proposal 4b - Combined House of Review
Legislation would be debated and passed in the lower
house, in accordance with current practice. It would then
be sent to the upper house for review. In the upper house
the legislation would be voted on by both the elected
members and the appointed member. Elected Senators would
have 50% of the total vote and the appointed members would
have the other 50% of the vote (regardless of numbers of
Elected members would meet in Parliament House in
Canberra to debate legislation and also to run the
committee process. The appointed member would work from
their homes, in their communities, to review legislation.
Appointed members would not be involved in the Senate
committee process. Most interaction would be online. For
appointed members legislation discussion, review and
voting would be online. There may be the occasional get
together (statewide or nationwide) for training. These get
togethers would not include elected members or other
politicians in any significant capacity.
Legislation passes the lower house. It would be sent
electronically to the appointed members along with a
detailed description prepared by parliamentary officers on
what the function of legislation would be if passed. They
would be told how the members of the lower house voted on
the legislation. They would also be provided with links
(video and transcript) to the lower house debate
associated with the legislation. The elected members could
also send to the appointed members further arguments on
their reasons the legislation should be passed or rejected
- the benefit or otherwise to Australia. It would be sent
to all appointed members, not individually. This could
also include video highlights from the lower house
debates. The elected members would also debate the
legislation in the upper house, as per current practices,
however the vote on the legislation would not occur
straight away. A time for the vote would be set say a week
(or two) away. This is to give the appointed members a
further opportunity to consider the upper house debate and
to ask questions and to discuss the legislation.
Questions and discussion would be via a forum type
application. All appointed members and upper house elected
members would be able to use the forum. Elected members
would off course be trying to promote the view of their
party - which is fine - and so will be motivated to answer
the questions put - both for the yes case and the no case.
No off forum or private discussion allowed. Discussion
between members on the forum would also be encouraged -
but not off line. It may be in view of the elected members
or private between just the appointed members (two
It would be forbidden for elected members or members of
any political party to contact the appointed member
individually - online or otherwise - to try to influence
them individually. If it wasn't it would be quite likely
that the elected members would profile the appointed
members and then start using different arguments (possibly
conflicting arguments) for different appointed members
based on their profile. If an argument is considered good
enough to be used it has to be seen and considered by all
All members would submit their vote on the legislation by
the nominated time. The appointed member's vote would be
confidential. The elected member's vote public (as it is
There would be penalties for the appointed member if they
have accepted any material gain - other than the wage
associated with the position - due to their position.
Appointed members would not have to vote on all
legislation but would be expected to vote on at least two
thirds of the legislation. Appointed members would be
instructed to consider the legislation on it merits and
also on whether it has been part of the government's
election promises and how well if fulfilled that promise.
I would anticipate that the appointed member would not
have to spend all their time on carrying out the duties
associated with the appointment. The Senate currently
typically sits for 50 to 60 days per year (source:
Wikipedia). Using that as a guide possibly the appointed
member may be required full time for say 3 months of the
year (in a number of month long sessions associated with
when the upper house sits. Lesser time for Proposal 4a).
Time requirements would have to be determined from a
review of the workload. Hopefully the appointed members
will be able to continue their current employment as well
- with Government incentives to their employer to free up
their time. Their wage for the appointment would need to
be determined but could be based on the wages of the
elected members pro-rata for the time needed to carry out
the requirements of the appointment.
There would be a lot more detail required than I provided
here but hopefully this outlines the idea. If implemented
this approach would make the upper house a true house of
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