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For Tips on Senate Reform, Australia has a Lot to Teach Canada


Previously published in the Vancouver Sun, February 10th, 1998


Andrew D. Irvine

 Author Notes

Department of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

 Essay - 2/10/1998

Now that Australia has begun seriously to consider becoming a republic, it is almost certain that Australians will soon be facing a referendum on whether they wish to retain the Queen as head of state. Provided that the constitutional conference currently under way in Canberra can agree upon a proposal, Australians will soon be asked whether they would prefer a President who is either elected by the people or appointed by the government of the day.

Given the many parallels between Canada and Australia, does this mean that in the near future Canadians, too, will be asked whether we want to sever our connections with the crown? Probably not.

Despite the many recent proposals for constitutional reform in Canada, republicanism has never been very high on Canada's political agenda. Even Quebec has never insisted that it is the Queen who stands in the way of improved federal-provincial relations.

Perhaps more importantly, just as Canada often defines itself in contrast to the United States, Australians often see their national identity defined in contrast to that of Britain. Despite almost a century of independence, there still remains a longing on the part of many Australians to distinguish modern day Australia from its colonial past. Unlike Canada, Australia also has had a very public love-hate relationship with many of her governors general, dating back to 1975 when then prime minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed from office by the then governor general, John Kerr.

On November 11 of that year Kerr acted to resolve an impasse within Australia's federal Parliament. The impasse arose as a result of the Senate's refusal to grant supply in the form of two appropriation Bills already passed by the House of Representatives, together with the refusal of Whitlam either to resign or advise dissolution. In order to force dissolution, the governor general withdrew the prime minister's commission. He then installed the leader of the opposition as prime minister of a caretaker Liberal government. Supply was granted immediately and an election was announced the same day. In the ensuing election the Liberal/Country coalition was successful in winning a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Whitlam's Labour party took years to recover.

Inexact parallels are sometimes drawn between this crisis and the Canadian constitutional crisis of 1926. In June of that year governor general Lord Byng denied prime minister Mackenzie King's request for the dissolution of a freshly elected Parliament. Byng did so on the grounds that an election had just recently been held and that King had not yet lost the confidence of Parliament.

Byng granted the request for dissolution made a few days later by King's successor, Arthur Meighen, after Parliament had been proven unworkable.

The parallels drawn between 1926 and 1975 are inexact for several reasons, but the most important of these is the remarkably passionate feelings that the 1975 constitutional crisis left among Australia's voters about the role of the Queen's representative. Even today, almost a quarter of a century later, the events of 1975 can be a divisive topic of conversation among friends and family.

But even if Canada decides not to follow Australia's lead in considering republicanism, there are other lessons that might be learned from the Australian experience. One of these concerns the role of an elected Senate with regard to federal-provincial relations. Designers of Australia's Commonwealth Parliament drew heavily upon the Canadian model, but one place where they chose to follow American practice was with an elected Senate.

Faced with tensions between the small and large states, the Australians created a Parliament with two elected chambers, one based on representation by population, and a second based on state equality. Each state's representation in the House of Representatives is based as closely as possible on the size of its population in relation to the rest of the country, subject to a guaranteed minimum representation of five seats per state.

In the Senate, in contrast, all states are guaranteed an equal number of seats. Each state originally had six senators, a number which was increased to ten in 1950 and to twelve in 1985. No state's proportionate representation in either house can be reduced without its consent, nor can it lose the minimum five seats in the House of Representatives without its consent. The Commonwealth Parliament does, however, have the power to provide senatorial representation for the two Commonwealth territories, even though this representation dilutes the representation of each state in the Senate.

The American example was also followed in the selection process for senators. Australian Senators are elected for a fixed term of six years, one half elected every three years. Except for the power to grant a double dissolution, the governor general has no general prerogative power to dissolve the Senate. By contrast, governors general can dissolve the House of Representatives on the Prime Minister's advice at any time before the expiry of the three-year term of the House. Elections for the two houses thus need not coincide.

The two houses also differ in the manner of the election of their members. For elections to the House of Representatives, the states are divided into constituencies. Members are then elected on a preferential voting system with the number of members assigned to each state being proportional to its population. This method of election, like Canada's "first-past-the-post" electoral system, regularly transforms a popular vote plurality into a majority in the House, allowing the majority party to form the ministry. In contrast, senators are elected at large from their entire state on a purely proportional representation system. This method produces Senate party standings that are much closer to the popular vote and can (and regularly does) put the government in the minority in the Senate.

Given how well the Australian Senate has worked in brokering state and federal interests, it is this model of government, rather than any rush towards republicanism, that Canadians might rightly turn to when next we consider reforming our unpopular and poorly designed second chamber.

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