The Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, has seen governments come and go in the past 14 years. As an independent officer answerable to the Senate, not the Government of the day, he provides an instructive insight into the balance of powers between the legislature and the Executive Government. In particular, he notes that Governments of both complexions get feelings or immortality when the get into their third or even second terms. It means they can neither remember nor envisage the frustrations of Opposition, so they fail to realise that the things they suggest in Government to attract more power unto themselves might one day in the future be the instruments of their own impotence and frustration as a Government from the other side takes the benefit.
And so Mr Evans warned against two proposals put up by the present Government to increase the present three-year maximum term to a maximum four-year term and to permit the overriding of a Senate blockage of legislation more easily. At present if the Senate blocks legislation it can only be over-ridden if the legislation is rejected twice and there is a double dissolution and an election for both Houses. If the legislation is still blocked after that it can be submitted to a joint sitting. Under recent proposals coming from the Coalition side, if legislation is blocked three times it would go to a joint sitting without the need for an election.
Both those proposals add power to the Executive at the expense of the legislature. The extra year is just an extra year in which the Prime Minister can decide to delay an election until conditions suited him with no fetter on his power to call an election early – after just two years or so as now. The joint sitting without an intervening election would mean that ultimately all the Government’s legislation would go through unamended if the Government persisted through three initial rejections. On legislation, the Senate would become an irrelevancy.
Mr Evans is right to treat these proposals with suspicion. Members of the Coalition would do well to heed his warnings and imagine what would happen if such powers were delivered to the Labor Party.
Mr Evans was not against change when things were not working well. He thought that rather than extending the term — and the Prime Minister’s power – we should have a fixed term. That has many advantages.
He though that on the question of blocked legislation, a Government should have the chance to put the legislation to a referendum at the next election – thereby avoiding the cumbersome process of a double dissolution with the whole Senate having to retire (instead of half the Senate as normal elections) and the difficulty of the timing of subsequent elections caused by the requirement that the new Senate sit immediately after the election with terms deemed to have started the previous July 1.
The referendum on the particular legislation rejected is a much more democratic way of dealing with impasses over legislation.
It might be awkward if the people accepted the legislation yet defeated the Government that sponsored it, but it would be open to the new Government not to put the legislation to the Governor-General to sign into law.
Certainly, Mr Evans’s proposal would have enabled the present Government to overcome the Senate’s blocking of unfair dismissal laws and the privatisation of the rest of Telstra without emasculating the Senate’s powers over new Bills.