Thursday, June 19, 2003

Alarmed but not Alert(?)

Pursuing my morbid fascination with star committee performer Seantor Santo Santoro, I came across this fascinating little exchange from yesterday's Question Time in the Senate:

Senator SANTORO (2.08 p.m.): My question is to the Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Alston. Will the minister inform the Senate of the next steps in the development of the Prime Minister’s proposed constitutional reform to ensure that elected governments’ efforts to act in the national interest are not unreasonably obstructed by the Senate? What evidence is there that this is a matter that needs to be urgently addressed?

Senator ALSTON: It is a very important question that Senator Santoro has asked, and the Prime Minister’s address to the Liberal Party convention a couple of weekends back really brought into focus what has been an ongoing problem with the Senate.

In many ways, the media and others get it wrong because it is not really the Senate that is opposed; it is Labor that is opposed. What the Prime Minister’s proposal involves is a sensible proposition supported by Gough Whitlam - in fact, proposed by Gough Whitlam amongst others - which would allow for a joint sitting of the parliament to be held when important legislation is twice rejected during the term of the parliament. There have been a number of constructive suggestions made about the proposal. Certainly Mr Lavarch has put something on the table which is well worth further consideration.

The next step in this process is to have a discussion paper circulated for public comment. We very much expect that we will get some sensible contributions, but that has to be against the background of understanding why these sorts of proposals need to be seriously considered. It is essentially because, whenever it comes to serious legislation, the ‘just say no’ party takes its orders from its trade union masters and blocks it in principle - if it ever had any principles - because that is what it is about.

When John Howard's proposal was first mooted the BlogGeist (or at least the leftist and moderate centrist portions of the BlogGeist) was pretty dismissive of the idea: John Howard was merely flying another kite and, if it came to a referendum, he'd find his string cut anyway (as happened with his comfortable and relaxed pre-amble to the Constitution). But, on the face of it, Senator Santoro's Dorothy Dixer, and Senator Alston's reply indicate that the Government is prepared to pursue this particular "reform" fairly seriously.

I don't think this should be treated as yet another attempt to intimidate the Senate and the Opposition: the Government's main political tactic there is to keep on bunging up the double dissolution triggers. This looks like a seriously intended proposal, aimed at bringing the Senate to heel [permanently]. And, while the Government argues that this is in the long term national interest, Senator Alston's remarks make it pretty clear which interests actually come first: the Government's short and medium term political interests.

Right now, there are two serious questions that need to be asked:

Just where the hell is this Government taking this country?

Do we really want to go there?

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