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2 Dec 2015

Bicameral Representation

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN ( 15:41 :58 ): I rise to defend the honour of the Legislative Council. I wish to speak in response to the intellectually bereft article recently written by Mr Rex Jory, calling for the abolition of this chamber. Mr Jory sets out a number of arguments for abolition. I am being kind to Mr Jory in describing his aggressive and inane assertions as arguments. Arguments usually have a rational basis and are an attempt to be persuasive. His writings on the Legislative Council do not share these attributes.

It is difficult to know where to start. At the outset he implies that the circumstances surrounding Mr Finnigan somehow justify that we are no longer relevant. Criticism of Mr Finnigan cannot be sheeted home to the chamber or an argument in support to abolish. Indeed, the Premier acknowledged yesterday that the Labor Party accepted responsibility and is seeking to repair the reputation of the chamber by the appointment of a new member.

Mr Jory fails to recognise that to abolish this chamber means significant and far reaching reform of the lower house. It is not a case of just losing one chamber. Our democracy will have to be completely restructured. I remind Mr Jory that this chamber has two broad functions—scrutiny and accountability. We undertake a detailed examination of legislation. Even a quick glance at the other place’s Hansard reveals that the government control ultimately works against detailed examination of the impact of a bill.

We are also able to hold the executive and senior public officials to account for their actions to the parliament and in turn to the people. What Mr Jory is suggesting is a four-year dictatorship without any restraints on government and then an election. Our citizens seek certainty in their lives. They do not need large scale and erratic change every four years. Further, an election rarely delivers a pure mandate for a government on a particular issue. People vote for a party for a variety of reasons.

If there is a prima facie case for reform, it is with the other place as well as the role of committees. I think we should have a good look at the size of our lower house electorates. With modern means of transportation and communication, our electorates could become much larger in the number of their voters. This would in turn enable us to reduce the number of seats in the other place. Parliamentary committees also need greater independence and power. The council rarely, if ever, creates an impediment to any government’s capacity to react decisively to opportunities or changing circumstances. Much government decision-making today is administrative and does not require legislation. The attempts at reforming the health sector are a good example.

This chamber does not stand in the way of progress. Rather, it is a chamber devoted to pushing for economic and social progress. Mr Jory was wrong to suggest that ministers are unable to guide legislation through the chamber. For the record, I remind him there are three ministers, not two, as he asserted. The ministers are ably assisted through the process by parliament counsel and ministerial officers.

The strongest voice in favour of this chamber is from the people of South Australia themselves. This support for the distribution of power can be seen clearly in South Australia’s voting patterns, which suggest that voters do actually value the upper house. Since the introduction of proportional representation in 1973, the government has never controlled the Legislative Council. The existence of minor parties in the upper house is testimony to that fact. They grace this chamber with their intellect and passion.

Is Mr Jory suggesting that the minor parties and their important constituencies have no voice, or is he suggesting—which is what I suspect—that scrutiny of government and advocacy of issues be left simply to the media and the faceless and unelected editorial teams? Accountability mechanisms in the Westminster system are composed of many checks and balances. All rely on the concept of power against power.

Even though the government of the day may find the idea of scrutiny of the executive frustrating, especially if it feels the scrutiny is politically damaging, the division of power between the two houses is used around the world in virtually all the leading democracies as the best way to hold governments and bureaucracy to account. No reigning political party should be left unchecked to destroy the state’s future. US president Woodrow Wilson stated:

Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of the government. The history of liberty is a history of resistance. The history of liberty is the history of the limitation of government al power , not the increase of it.

Before the 1970s, this chamber was the last bastion of conservatism, but today it is where democracy resides at its most vibrant.

See full session on Hansard

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