The Holy Grail and Poisoned Chalice of Politics

The Senate is shaping up to be a key battleground of the next federal election. While most of the mainstream media have focused on the numbers in the House of Representatives, the Senate is equally as finely balanced and, if the polls are to be believed, there is the potential for the Coalition to win a majority in both houses of Parliament.

This prospect should alarm voters of all persuasions.

For Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s detractors, his Senate domination would represent a doomsday scenario, as his new government could move swiftly to dismantle the Labor agenda. The rescission of carbon pricing, the culmination of decades’ of debate, in particular would be a major blow for all those who advocate climate action.

Many would also be concerned about the implications of Abbott’s social agenda. In particular, the extent to which his conservatism on gay rights and women’s rights would influence his decision making is unknown. But many Australians would be worried about what the future holds without the handbrake of the Senate.

While many Coalition supporters are no doubt salivating at this prospect, they would be ill-advised to crack out the champagne just yet. As Tony Abbott’s friend and mentor John Howard would no doubt attest, the holy grail of Australian politics that is a majority in both houses of Parliament can be a double-edged sword.

During much of the life of the Howard government, the prime minister had to work with the crossbench senators (Democrats, Greens and independents) in order to implement his legislative agenda.

As a result, many of Howard’s harder-edged policies were rejected or substantially diluted.

But following the routing of the ALP and destruction of the Democrats at the 2004 election, Howard gained control of both houses of Parliament for the first time. With the numbers finally on his side, he was free to pursue his agenda unfettered.

On industrial relations, the temptation to further an ideological commitment proved too much. In its contentious WorkChoices legislation, the government sewed the seeds for its own undoing and the Australian people soon concluded it had overreached.

Ultimately, without the forced quality-control of the Senate and the necessity to listen to diverse perspectives and reflect these in policy formation, the Howard government fell increasingly out of touch and moved into dangerous political territory.

There is reason to believe a two-house majority would also present challenges for any future Abbott government.

For instance, as prime minister Abbott could come under pressure from within his own party to pursue a more radical policy framework. Given the Opposition’s policy platform is largely a blank canvas, it would not be difficult for some of Mr Abbott’s colleagues to fill in the gaps. For instance, it is clear from the continued advocacy of Peter Reith that industrial relations is far from finished business for the Liberals.

Such moves would certainly unsettle voters, many of whom are already only lukewarm at best towards the Opposition Leader.

Further, there is another risk for Abbott. Having spent the last three years pointing the finger at the Labor party, with control of both houses he would soon discover that the buck well and truly stops with him. He and his party would be held to account for every failure of the next Parliament. Through his scathing attacks on the Government, Abbott has set himself a very high bar.

For the ALP, reduced influence in the Senate could provide the opportunity to refocus and regroup, without the pressure that comes with having to deal with the legislative agenda of the government of the day.

After all, in 2004 many commentators predicted the death of Australian Labor as its vote crashed to historically low levels. Just three years later, the Howard Government faced a unified and resurgent opposition.

Voters of all persuasions (including the Opposition Leader himself) have reason to be alarmed by the prospect of a new government controlling both houses of Parliament. Should Abbott win the ultimate prize at the next election, he may regret not being subject to the checks and balances that come with an effective Senate.

This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 24th May 2012. 

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