Rann attacks Legislative Council


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.

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  1. With any reform, the questions must be asked “What do we want to achieve?” and the reform should then be crafted around that and the question released publicly.

    The answer to this question appears to be “to cripple the Legislative Council’s ability to get in the way of the government”. I’m surprised Rann hasn’t looked at returning to the block vote a la the Australian Senate pre-1949.

    I’m sure the BCSA would be more than happy with a return to the good ol’ days of appointed Legislative Councillors because they’d be able to convince Rann to appoint a few of them to such positions because they know how to run things. They also seem to be confused as to what “government” is; hint: governments aren’t formed in the Legislative Council and a government doesn’t require an LC majority to rule. You know, just in case you guys honestly forgot rather than trying to bend the truth.

  2. I know its nothing new but it still chills me to the bone that there are so many elected politicians who are just completely and “blatantly incompetent or insane”.

  3. Regions probably wouldn’t be a viable option in SA as the population is so concentrated in Adelaide that there’d presumably be a degree of malapportionment involved, and whilst that may not be much different from WA, South Australians would seem to have an aversion to malapportionment that dates from the so-called ‘Playmander’ that kept Playford and the LCL in power for so long.

    Maybe the better option would be to have a larger single-chamber parliament elected via some proportional system. Obviously Rann isn’t interested in that though. I can’t believe so many people still class him as progressive – his government makes the NSW government look progressive.

  4. I think that 3 7-member electorates would be better and more likely to get minor party representation that 5×5. This would mean that the SALC was 21 (the same size as when it was half-way through democratisation). Tasmania should be brought back to 5×7 and the ACT should be 3×7. Does anyone know what the Liberals position on SALC reform is?

  5. “Does anyone know what the Liberals position on SALC reform is?”

    They’re probably trying to come up with it now.

  6. 3×7 would probably mean two Adelaide only and one for the rest (including the outskirts of Adelaide) and would also shrinking the size by one. 5×5 would mean an increase of 4 and 3 Adelaide and two ruralish.

  7. I guess my comment presumed that they’d want to avoid having a mixed metro-rural region, which they would have to under 5 x 5 or there would be an imbalance, but I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

    It appears 3 x 7 would reasonably neatly make 2 metro and 1 rural region (incl the Hills, Gawler and the southern outskirts of the city). I imagine there’d be some resistance to having such a large and diverse region, which is where 5 x 5 might be easier to sell.

  8. There was a bill passed in New Zealand in 1914 but not implemented due to the war but remained implementable until the abolition in 1950 by the National Government. Had this reform got put in place then New Zealand would have had different politics at least after Social Credit got in (Social Credit got 11.13% of the vote).

  9. Of all Australian Legislative Councils, the one that needs upgrading is Western Australia’s considering that one country vote is worth more than three city votes.
    This inevitably grants the state a lasting conservative upper house. No conservative government in their right mind would want to overhaul this system and Labor would have to secure a very high vote with the Greens in order to have an attempt at this.

  10. Yes, the WA Legislative Council definitely needs reform. When the Legislative Assembly was reformed in the last term, introducing one vote one value in the Legislative Council was blocked by a single country Greens MLC opposing what is clear Greens policy and forcing the government to compromise.

  11. The reform of the LCWA was badly done. What should have happened is that the other Greens, the ALP and the breakaway Liberal should have voted to give the President (of the LCWA) a vote on all bills that require an absolute majority (the President was ALP) so that they had a majority and then passed a 5 7-member electorate upper house with 1 vote, 1 value with each LCWA electorate corresponding to 13 LAWA electorates (for 65 MLAs).

  12. It may be clear Greens policy now, but weren’t the Greens WA always opposed to 1 vote 1 value before they affiliated with the Australian Greens? At least, when I was a Democrat, that’s something we used to criticise the Greens over.

  13. @Tom

    The problem with 3 electorates in the ACT is that they don’t align very well to communities of interest. The problem would be particularly acute with three equal-sized electorates – you really need 5, so either 5×5 or 5×7, but 5×7 would be more than a doubling in size of the current LA so is pretty unlikely.

  14. I believe that there is support in the ACT ALP for 3×7 and I think that they may have tried to change before but fallen at the hurdle of the Territories Minister. The ACT was divided into three Commonwealth electorates from 1996-1998 (although that included Jervis Bay Territory). There boundaries are always going to be rather arbitrary in the ACT.

  15. If the New Zealand Legislative Council had been proportionalised then or in the 30 years after that then their politics would be a bit different because the Legislative Council would have been much less likely to be abolished and Social Credit would probably have been elected at the 1954 election and performed a Democrat style function for decades.

    The Barton governments election bill in 1902 included PR for the Senate but the Senate amended it out of the final Electoral Act 1902. This would have prevented the ludicrously lopsided results in the Senate before 1949. At the 1919 election no ALP Senators were elected and the was only one elected at the previous election so there was 1 ALP Senator for three years. A PR Senate would have meant a minimum of 12 Senators for each side (after two half-Senate elections) until the Senate was expanded.


  16. New Zealand’s situation is different because it’s an independent country, whereas South Australia is a state in a federal system, meaning that even if the Legislative Council were abolished, as in Queensland, South Australia would still benefit from a bicameral system.

    National did propose that New Zealand have a Senate elected by STV (Hare-Clark) with equal representation for the North and South Island – as was proposed in the 1914 bill for the Legislative Council. However, it was only as a reaction to the decision to adopt PR in the 1990s – and it was National that got rid of the Legislative Council in the first place!

    First Joh-Bjelke-Petersen, then Mike Rann – who’ll be next Kiwi export in Australian state politics?

  17. The proposed referendum never took place. Would have been hugely defeated. Rann and conservative Labor got the message- keep your hands off our blessed Legislative Council. Now with 2 wonderful Green MLC’s!

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