South Australia’s Premier, Mike Rann, yesterday announced the details of a referendum to be held alongside next March’s state election, which, if passed, would see the number of seats in the Legislative Council cut from 22 to 16, with all MLCs elected for a four-year term at every election, and would allow the government to call an early election in the case of disagreement with the upper house.
I think it’s wise to be distrustful of any politician that proposes reducing the number of MPs. It’s a superficially populist policy that ultimately concentrates power in the hands of the government. It seems bizarre that, in a time when population is growing rapidly all across Australia you would consider reducing the number of representatives in Parliament. If anything, a larger population merits an increased size of Parliaments, state or federal.
It seems it is a blatant attempt to destroy the only serious check on the power of the Rann government. While a 16-seat Legislative Council would still allow minor parties like the Greens and Family First to win one seat each, it would undoubtedly harm the ability of the upper house to work as a house of review, in terms of forming functional committees that can investigate issues closely. I’m sure many party leaders would be happy to be rid of some of their backbenchers, who are always more free to rebel and disagree with the government’s direction. If a majority of your party are in the cabinet, it’s much easier to keep a tight leash. Yet these microparliaments result in bizarre scenarios like those in Tasmania and the ACT where a governing party has no depth on the bench, and has to bring into cabinet every MP who is not blatantly incompetent or insane.
It’s understandable that South Australians would not want to continue to elect MLCs for an eight-year term. However, you could achieve a four-year term in the upper house without reducing the size of the Legislative Council to a ridiculously small size. Either you could leave the chamber at its current size, which would produce a quota only slightly lower than in New South Wales. Another option, which would probably be prefered in terms of the types of MLCs you would elect, would be to adopt the Western Australian/Victorian model with MLCs being elected to represent a region. You could easily elect the Legislative Council from five regions, with each region electing 5 MLCs.
The ABC’s story also includes bizarre comments from Business SA, who, like many business lobby groups, appear to want to strip away any semblance of democratic accountability from our modern governance, be it upper houses not controlled by governments or local council control of planning decisions.
Chief executive officer Peter Vaughan says Legislative Councillors have promised to address key issues for the business community but the the nature of the Upper House prevents them from doing so.
“When that’s denied by a coalition in the Upper House that can have very low electoral mandates and be one-purpose only elected personnel in the Upper House, that defeats and destroys the real reason for electing governments in the first place,” he said.
“There is far too much government and far too little action.
“Let the people have their say, I think that’s an appropriate way to go by referendum and let’s see if we can reform a form of governance in South Australia which really belongs more to the 18th and 19th centuries than it does to the 21st.”
I could go on about how the real 18th century form of governance is the bizarre system of single-member electorates which forces a two-party system on a political world where there are never only two sides to an issue, and locks in majority governments when no political party commands the support of the majority.
The Legislative Council in South Australia, like its counterparts across the Australian mainland, represents the democratic voice of the people in a political system where major political parties try their hardest to streamline government decision-making to prevent any sort of democratic accountability. Rather than attacking the upper house, we need to take lessons from upper houses to reinvigorate lower houses that have become little more than electoral colleges for the purposes of supporting elective dictatorships.
It is particularly bizarre that the proposal has arisen only a day after former Beattie cabinet minister Gordon Nuttall was convicted for corruption. Queensland is Australia’s only state without an upper house, and this lack of democratic oversight arguably has allowed state governments runaway power. New Zealand likewise abolished its Legislative Council in 1951, and New Zealand’s system of one-party governments controlling a unicameral parliament helped lead to runaway neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, creating such a backlash that led to the introduction of proportional representation in 1996.
Mike Rann’s referendum, rather than improving South Australia’s system of government, simply is a blatant attempt to grab further power and prevent pesky oversight of government.