Sunshine state headed for darker days without an upper house
PAUL WILLIAMS THE SUNDAY MAIL QLD DECEMBER 08, 2013 12:00AM
Premier Campbell Newmans Government has allowed complex and contentious legislation to slip through like castor oil.
PREMIER Campbell Newman is right about one thing. Queenslanders will not vote for more politicians.But that doesnt mean the idea of restored Legislative Council couldnt succeed at any referendum to bring back an upper house of parliament. No, we dont need more politicians. We just need the same number, in different roles, doing a better job.And oppositions usually agree. Politically and morally defeated by governments huge majorities in lower houses since the chamber was abolished more than 90 years ago, opposition parties have long called for a new Legislative Council.
The LNP, as recently as 2009, overwhelmingly supported the Councils return at its party conference in 2009.The trouble is those same oppositions dump the idea as soon as they sniff electoral victory. No government willingly subjects itself to the prying eyes of scrutiny, and usually has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the sunlight.But if theres one state in the Commonwealth that screams out for stronger scrutiny of government, its Queensland.Plagued by corrupt and authoritarian regimes from both sides of the political divide, the sunshine state has suffered some politically dark eras.Even legislative committees in a single house of parliament cannot help if most or all of them are dominated by government MPs. No government drone will criticise the ruling party in a committee report if it means losing preselection.Few Queenslanders were therefore surprised by recent events where complex and contentious legislation, ranging from bikies to sex offenders to workers compensation, slipped through parliament like castor oil.But many were genuinely gobsmacked when the Government sacked the PCMC for having the temerity to do its job: asking uncomfortable questions the government doesnt like.
The Newman Government already avoids sending key bills to committee and, even when it does, accepts committee findings just half the time. But even this poor record couldnt have foreshadowed the cavalier dismantling of a key democratic instrument.It was old-style Queensland politics where governments insist on getting their way. In the past, premiers were lauded as strong leaders for what amounted to bullying.Today, voters are more sophisticated and are more likely to know and condemn naked political self-interest when they see it.Thats why Im not convinced a referendum – a necessary ballot to ask Queenslanders on a restored upper house, added to the Constitution in 1934 – would necessarily fail. Its just a matter of having the right model.The key point is that a restored Council of 30 MPs could come at the cost of the lower house – currently 89 MPs but easily reduced to 59 or 60. There would be no real increase in MP salaries, offices or support staff, and ministers, except premiers and treasurers, would be sourced from both houses.But its crucial a restored upper house is elected on a different voting system to the winner-take-all model used to elect the Legislative Assembly. Otherwise the upper house would be a carbon copy of the lower, and whats the point?For simplicity, why not use the current Senate system of multi-member constituencies? Queensland could be divided into six regions of equal population, each electing five MPs on proportional representation.To avoid the hidden preference farce that plagued the September federal poll, voters would number all squares themselves, and no party with fewer than 5 per cent of the vote would be elected.We know that governments listen when votes are at risk. If the matter became an election issue, government strategists might think again.Better still, if the Government were presented with a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures then no government could ignore calls for reform.On simple arithmetical alone, the LNP will be in office for a very long time. While we enjoy the ride, we might as well have a parliament that at least does its job.Dr Paul Williams is a Griffith University School of Humanities Senior Lecturer