Australian news, and some related international items

Rex Patrick: has the Australian Senate lost its mojo?

Michael West Media, by Rex Patrick | Oct 25, 2022, “Powerful” or “piss-weak”? The Senate has greater powers than a royal commission yet in recent years its authority has declined amid refusals by the likes of the Defence Department, the Tax Commissioner and the government itself to cooperate with Senate orders. Former senator Rex Patrick on responsible government. ……………………….

Accountability in the Australian parliament

Both houses of parliament are empowered under Section 49 and Section 50 of the constitution to conduct oversight of government and to throw the light of publicity on its acts. 

The powers are significant allowing MPs and senators to ask questions of ministers (as occurs at question time and through questions on notice) and to inquire, compel witnesses, order the production of documents and to deal with contempt. The strict powers of each house of the federal parliament are greater than those of a royal commission…………………………………………….

the appetite for dealing with contempt by the Houses has died, rendering the inquiry power impotent. Exercising a power when it shouldn’t be is inappropriate, but so too is not exercising the power when it should.

Yes minister, no senator

Of course, the House of Representatives doesn’t conduct government oversight. The powers of the houses are exercised through a vote of the majority of its members and the government, by definition, controls the house. It can suppress information or inquiries which are to its disadvantage, sometimes by refusing to supply information, sometimes by using its numbers to stop inquiries altogether.

It is the Senate that is the grand inquest of the nation. Or at least it should be. But it isn’t. It fails dismally. 

The Senate seems satisfied with answers to question on notice that are both untimely and unsatisfactory. Most senators seem to just accept non-answers from officials at Senate estimates or politically infected and erroneous answers. 

All too often, orders for the production of documents have been met with contempt, with the government trumping up untested and often bogus public interest immunity claims. In those cases where the Senate arguments are strong for the documents to be produced, the Senate does nothing except weaken itself.

Across my time in and around the Senate I witnessed contempt after contempt.

  • On November 17, 2014, the Senate ordered the production of an economic modelling report into the impact of the future submarine project on the Australian economy. The Senate was refused access to it. I later obtained it using Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.
  • On October 9, 2016, the Senate ordered the production of the French submarine design and mobilisation contract. The Senate was refused access to it. I later obtained it using FOI.
  • On September 4, 2017, the Senate ordered the production of the Future Frigates. It had been given to overseas shipbuilders, but the Senate was refused access to it. I later obtained it under Freedom of Information laws.
  • On November 16, 2017, the Senate ordered the production of information relating to Murray-Darling strategic water purchases. The government withheld crucial valuation information which, wait for it, was later released to me under FOI.

……………………………………. No privileges, thanks

The privileges committee, often erroneously characterised by the media as “very powerful”, is impotent. It’s made up of senators, who thanks to their weakness and partisan loyalties, are a disgrace compared to their British counterparts who have for centuries battled to ensure Parliament is supreme over the executive.

The committee’s two most recent reports say it all.

For two years the Department of Defence withheld documents from the Senate’s economics reference committee’s inquiry into naval shipbuilding. It unquestionably interfered with the progress of the committee’s inquiry, but the privileges committee failed to find this was a contempt. It’s finding weakened the Senate. Once can expect the government to do more of the same in the future……………………………..

Mojo lost

We often hear people call for a royal commission to get to the bottom of something. This is a strange call for two reasons. 

Firstly, a royal commission is established by letters patent issued by the governor-general on the advice of government. Royal commissions are always for investigations in which the government is interested, not the people.

Secondly, the Senate has greater powers than a royal commission.

eople either subconsciously or consciously turn away from the Senate because they know it is weak. They know it has lost its mojo. And governments and bureaucrats know this better than anyone. So, it’s a vicious cycle in which the authority and power of the Senate continues to decline.

Its weakness is not the fault of the government and it’s not the fault of the Senate staff who do their best to support inquiries. It is exclusively the fault of senators.

The powers of the Senate have been established by convention. Unexercised, those conventions will turn into points of interest for historians. That would be a tragedy, because securing accountability of government is the very essence of responsible government.


October 25, 2022 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, politics

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