October 10, 2013

Horse 1550 - Unicameralism? Abolish The Senate?

Arguably the Australian Senate is among the most powerful upper houses of parliaments in the world. Quite unlike the British House of Lords or the Canadian Senate, it has a wider set of powers including the ability to reject budgetary bills.

The original intent of the Senate in Australia was to keep the smaller states (which at the time of Federation were Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia) from being bullied by the two more powerful and more populous states, who had more members in the House of Representatives. In fact at the time of federation, New South Wales had as many seats (26) as the four smaller states combined (also 26).
The Senate provides equal representation for the states but not with respect to population. One New South Wales senator represents 606,000 people whilst one Tasmanian senator represents just 42,000 people. In fact, the entire of Tasmania's population would be served by less than a single member had they been from New South Wales.
In consequence, it is often the smaller states like Tasmania and South Australia from where the balance of power in the Senate rests. Smaller states are also more likely to send independents and minor party members to the Senate because the number of votes is far less. Most likely because of this, former Prime Minister once said in 'forbidding' the then Treasurer John Dawkins to attend a Senate Committee:
"I would forbid him going to the Senate, to account to this unrepresentative swill over there..."

With all of this by way of background, the question I've been proposed is:
How much money if any, would be saved if the Senate was done away with?

This question was asked of the Irish Parliament and was one of the election promises of the Fine Gael party if elected to government was to put that very question to a referendum:
Enda Kenny said tonight that in Government Fine Gael was committed to reducing the number of TDs in the Dáil by more than 20, and abolishing the Seanad completely.
Speaking at his party's presidential dinner in Dublin, Mr Kenny told around 1,300 guests that the abolition of the Seanad and the reduction of over 20 TDs would save an estimated €150m over the term of a Dáil.
- breakingnews.ie, 17th Oct 2009

That referendum came and went, this weekend just passed (5th Oct). The election results though have meant that the Irish Seanad remains with with 48.3% voting in favour of abolition, with 51.7% against.
Of that decision, which is the will of the people, the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) said that:
"People love to have shouting matches. We know now that like the All-Ireland Final, it is not going to be replayed so we have to deal with the question of how you make a Seanad effective."
- Enda Kenny, via RTE, 8th Oct 2013

Unlike the Australian Senate, The Irish Seanad is not elected by the people. Some are appointed by the Taoiseach, some are appointed by universities and still more are elected by City and County Councillors, members of the new Dáil (lower house) and members of the outgoing Seanad (upper house). That means that perhaps there is impetus to remove the upper house in Ireland but maybe not in Australia; almost certainly not from states like Tasmania and South Australia which would still feel bullied by the more powerful states.

According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Australian Senate costs $21,906,000 per year. Arguably that's not really a lot to be paying when it comes to the costs of the administration of a nation. If cost be the only argument to abolish the Senate, then that might be strong enough? I don't know. Maybe this could be a case where all the 1%s add together for real savings? The old proverb "take car of the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves" might be instructive here but I demand numbers before I cast judgement.

Within Australia, Queensland actually did do away with its upper house, the Legislative Council met for the last time on 27th October 1921. The difference between the Queensland Legislative Council and the Australian Senate was that the Legislative Council was made up of unelected members of Queensland's rich and powerful rather than being elected like the Federal Senate.
Being that the abolition of the Queensland Legislative Council occured in the financial year 1921-22, its very difficult to find budget comparisons to find out if any money was saved. Certainly in the years of the Bjelke-Petersen governments from 1968-1987, questions were being asked if an upper house might have been a safeguard against the excesses that a unicameral parliament created.
The story behind Queensland abolishing its upper house makes for fascinating reading. Thankfully, the Parliament of Queensland provides a nice overview:

Likewise, New Zealand like Queensland abolished its Legislative Council on 31st Dec 1950. Also like Queensland the members of the Legislative Council who had been appointed to oversee its destruction from within were colourfully known as the 'suicide squad'.
However unlike Queensland, New Zealand in abolishing its upper house, moved those member into the lower house. New Zealand's House of Representatives has both members elected on an electorate basis and on a list basis like some other parliaments in the world.
Again, finding budgetary figures for the New Zealand parliament from more than 60 years ago is proving difficult. Trying to find a "Book of The Year" for Australia starts to become a hard task for anything before about 1975 in libraries; for New Zealand and on this side of the Tasman Sea, might yet prove to be impossible.

There would be a colossal hurdle to climb over to get the Senate to agree to abolish itself. Unlike Queensland or New Zealand where the house itself could be stacked which members to form a suicide squad, or even Ireland which for the purpose of the referendum asked everyone in the nation, to pass a referendum in Australia requires a majority of voters AND a majority of states. Smaller states are probably not likely to want to agree to lessen their representation in parliament and Australians are very distrustful when it comes to referenda generally - of 44 which have been put forwatd, only 8 have been successful and there have even been 5 instances where an overall national "Yes" vote has been carried and yet still failed to win a majority of states.
Do I think that Australians would actually carry a vote to abolish the Senate? It seems unlikely.

Deep down I think that Australians fear what would happen if a party from either side of the political divide had control of both houses of parliament. The last time that a major party had control of both houses of Parliament, John Howard brought in WorkChoices pretty well much as a rubber stamp process. Ultimately and in spite of the utter deadlock which the United States currently finds itself in with a bicameral parliament, I suspect that the time spent in reviewing legislation is probably very expensive but maybe that expense is entirely worth it.
Australians will spend roughly $95m on potato chips in 2013/14, if the Australian Senate only costs $22m (less than a quarter) for the same period, is that cost of administration worth it? I suspect so.

How much money if any, would be saved if the Senate was done away with? Probably about $22m-$25m a year. Is it likely? No.

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