Monday, August 25, 2008

Senate Watch: keeping the bastards honest

Paul Keating famously called the Senate “unrepresentative swill”.

If that’s the case, why is it so important?

Don Chipp’s Democrats were supposed “to keep the bastards honest”. Of course he meant the major parties. But for most of the last 50 years we could well ask who was keeping the minor parties and independents honest? Particularly when they held the balance of power. Nor can the Coalition Senators be forgotten as they can make or break government legislation as well.

We had a brief moment during the past 3 years when the Howard government had a majority in the Senate. Work Choices was its most glaring result. For most of my voting career of 40 years, minor parties have held the balance of power or the Coalition have had the numbers.

The coalition aside, The Greens, Family First’s Steve Fielding and independent Nick Xenophon will decide what part of the government’s legislative and fiscal programs get the nod. Why do they need to be watched?

I’ll be watching the Greens to see how they deal with climate change.

Family First’s and Xenophon’s moral agendas are an obvious focus but more importantly we need to scrutinise how Fielding votes on other issues and why. Senator Brian Harradine extracted a ban on the abortion pill RU486 by supporting other Coalition legislation.

When he negotiates about issues such as Fuel Watch, South Australia’s Lower Lakes and an Emissions Trading Scheme, we can expect Nick to push his private member’s bill banning ATMs at poker machine venues.

Fielding's family values, which many regard as Christian values, will also be on the table. Usually these equate to matters related to sexuality and censorship. And we are not talking about freedoms or choice.

The issue of horse trading and narrow agendas is not the only reason why we should be watching the Senate very closely. A short list would include:

• Its power to block Supply
• Its narrow mandate
• Its role as a States house: States Rights and interests
• Public accountability and scrutiny through Question Time and the Committee system
• The politics of climate change

More on these in later posts.

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