At the time this article was written David
E. Smith was Professor and Chairman of the Department of Political Science at
the University of Saskatchewan. In August 1999 he participated in a conference
in Canberra arranged by the Australian National University in association with
The Australian Senate was the first popularly elected upper house
in the world. Originally, senators were elected under a plurality system of
voting. After 1919 the preferential ballot was used and then, in 1949,
proportional representation was introduced. In August 1999, a conference to
mark fifty years of proportional representation took place at Canberra’s
Parliament House. The program included sessions on the origins of PR, its
effect on concepts of representation and accountability, the implications of an
altered chamber for the behaviour of journalists and interests groups, and the
contribution of minor parties and independents who have benefited from the
Senate’s change in electoral procedure. Although the papers and
subsequent discussion were largely Australian in their references, their
unifying theme – the changing role of the upper house in that country’s
Parliament – possesses immediate interest for Canadians. This article
summarizes some of the issues raised at the conference.
States have equal representation
in the Senate. At the time of federation six each but now twelve, and today
there are two senators apiece for the two Territories. Until 1949, the size of
both the Senate and the House of Representatives had remained unchanged since
1901. It was the desire of the government of the day to enlarge the lower house
that opened the door to introducing PR in the Senate. Section 24 of the Commonwealth
of Australia Constitution Act, 1900 states that the number of house members
“shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of senators.” Many
participants noted this linkage between the size of the two chambers. Section
24 underlines a more general proposition however, which is that the houses are
two parts of one Parliament. From a Canadian perspective this is a useful
reminder of a truth proponents of reform to the Senate of Canada seldom mention
– the effect of change in the upper chamber upon the operation of the lower
house. In short, the conference on PR was at another level a conference on the
dynamics of bicameralism.
And so it should have been,
since much of the attention in Australian political debate today focuses on the
inability of governments of either of the two major parties (the
Liberal-National Coalition or Labor) to secure majority control of the Senate. Since
1955, when the first minor party (Democratic Labor) appeared as a result of a
split in the Australian Labor Party, minor parties have held the balance of
power for 32 of the 44 years. According to one presenter, what has
happened in Australia is a “regime change,” and PR has been its agent.
The Senate has become the forum for minority interests, and more of these
interests are active now than ever before. Major parties in Australia, as
in Canada, have witnessed a decline in voter allegiance and a loss in authority
to control political debate at large. Ian Marsh, a professor at the
Australian Graduate School of Management, University of New South
Wales/University of Sydney argued that “the women’s, environment, gay,
Aboriginal, consumer, multi-cultural … movements are all
organised independently of the major parties.”1 These
are largely the same constituencies that avail themselves of the Charter of
Rights and Freedoms in Canada.
Following this line of argument
the Senate in Australia has become a house of minorities whose primary concern
is to broker interests that go un- or under-represented in the lower house.
Passage of the Howard Government’s GST legislation in June 1999 depended
upon support from the leader of the Australian Democrats in the Senate.
In addition to winning a GST exemption for food, the Democrats won a
government commitment to increase social benefit spending. Some
conference participants said that the Senate had yet to define its role in
Australian politics. That may be true from where Australians stand, but
from the vantage of an outsider what is significant is that the Senate is not
now, nor ever has been, the States’ house so dear to federal theorists.
There was general agreement with the observation offered by John Uhr of
Australian National University that if states rights was the objective then PR
was not the solution, since it “would do nothing to keep state delegations
The Senate has assumed the role
that Bagehot and J.S. Mill once assigned to the lower chamber. It is the
true educative, informing, legislative chamber, while the House, locked in the
thrall of party discipline, is a permanent electioneering body.
Even if this analysis is
correct, and the sense of the conference was that it is, why should it be of
interest to students of parliamentary government in Canada? The answer
lies in Canada’s unresolved debate over the future of its second chamber.
The Australian Senate is one model, and an attractive one, that Canadians
might like to emulate. But Australian experience with a popularly elected
upper house raises difficult questions that proponents of change should heed.
For instance, Parliament in Australia is an institution of divided
representation. Does that mean, as the title of one of the conference
papers asked, that “the Senate can claim a mandate?”3 And if it can
make that claim, what sort of a mandate does it have: strong or weak, specific
or general? How far may it go in interfering with the policies of the
government? It is worth noting that while the actions of the Senate of
Canada normally do not pose similar challenges to government, none the less the
same questions are asked here only in a different language, that of referendum
Again, where there are two popularly
elected chambers in a parliament, what happens if there is a deadlock?
Australians remember what happened when the Liberal-dominated Senate
refused to pass Gough Whitlam’s financial measures in 1975. Dismissal by
the governor-general of a government that controls the lower house cannot
happen often, or even seldom. The Australian Constitution provides in
Section 57 for double dissolution, that is simultaneous election of both
houses. But this is not attractive to a government that sees no hope of
winning a majority in the second chamber. That is one reason why today
Australian prime ministers prefer to bargain with minor parties in the Senate.
Would the same thing happen in Canada? Would the elections some
propose for the Senate be at the same or different times as the elections for
the House of Commons. Whether they are simultaneous or non-simultaneous
they present challenges to governments, to political parties and, maybe, even
to voters. Would voters here, as the conference was told Australians
do, deliberately split their vote in order to create a check on government?
There are those in Australia, in
the Coalition and the Labor Party, who want to check the assertiveness of the
minor parties in the Senate by making it more difficult for them to win Senate
seats or to limit the Senate’s power to block certain bills. That such
reforms would be good for a government is obvious; for that reason they are
unlikely to find favour with the public. The Clerk of the Senate, Harry
Evans, made a strong plea for retention of PR as it currently operates.
“By denying governments control of upper houses,” he said, proportional
representation “has prevented the virtually complete suppression of
accountability which occurs when governments have that control.”4
Evans is not alone in his admiration for the Senate whose vitality he
attributes to proportional representation. Three of the five states with
upper houses have adopted PR as well. (Even if the Canadian Senate were
to become an elected body, there is no chance for a similar demonstration
effect here since there is total institutional asymmetry between the federal
and provincial governments in the matter of upper houses).
When it comes to the subject of
elections – the secret ballot, the drawing of boundaries, the franchise –
Australians have been innovators. One of the marked features of the PR
Conference was the participation from the audience of members of proportional
representation societies from New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and the
Australian Capital Territory. Why in these matters have Australians been
disposed to experiment and Canadians so conservative? Is the root of the
explanation for this inventiveness the same one that explains why Australians
voted in November1999 in a referendum on a republic? Following Arend Lijphart’s
lead, many commentators describe what is happening in Australia as consensus
politics. If it is consensus, it is agreement between people who share much in
common. Canadians have lived with real difference for a long time and have made
its politics work. Consensus is too strong a term for what happens here –
negotiation would be a better description. Negotiations are fragile constructs
that avoid the glare of controversy that accompanies elections.
1. Ian Marsh, “Opening up the Policy Process,” paper for
presentation to “Representation and Institutional Change: A Conference to Mark
50 Years of Proportional Representation in the Senate,” Parliament House,
Canberra, 5 and 6 August 1999 and “Institutional Change” 5-6 (hereafter
conference citation, “Representation and Institutional Change”).
2. John Uhr, “Why We Chose Proportional Representation,”
Representation and Institutional Change, 9.
3. Murray Goot, “Can the Senate Claim a Mandate?,” Representation
and Institutional Change.
4. Harry Evans, “Accountability versus government control: the
effect of proportional representation,” Representation and Institutional Change,