Q&A on mandates
The culture wars must really be over when I’m getting my ideas favorably cited by Janet Albrechtsen. Admittedly it’s prefaced by “even leftwing academics like John Quiggin …”, but her opening para follows my analysis almost exactly, and I agree with her on the point of principle.
Albrechtsen is quoting this Online Opinion piece on mandates, in which I argue that the idea that a government with a majority in the House of Representatives has a mandate obliging the Senate to pass legislation implementing its election policies is misconceived. Since both houses are elected, and since no party in recent decades has received a majority of first-preference votes for the Lower House, there’s no general reason why the views of a majority of Senators should be regarded as less legitimate than those of a majority in the Lower House.
Albrechtsen applies this argument to defend the decision of the Senate to delay, or maybe block altogether, the government’s legislation repealing WorkChoices. While she’s right in rejecting the mandate idea, there are still some good reasons why the Senate should not block this legislation.
The first relates to the lame-duck nature of the current Senate, half of which will be replaced in July with the senators we elected in November. If we had fixed terms for both houses, this kind of nonsense would be avoided, but as it is, I think there’s a case that the outgoing Senate would be wise to take some account of the results of the election, in which the Coalition lost its Senate majority in an election where WorkChoices was a key issue. It doesn’t make much sense to hold up transitional legislation preparing for changes that can be shown to have majority support in the new Senate.
The more relevant point though is political. You don’t need to count seats in the House of Representatives, or parse the text of Labor’s policy statement, to know that the Australian electorate rejected WorkChoices at the last election, and that they haven’t changed their minds since then. If the Coalition parties choose to ignore that fact, they’ll pay a steep political price, as they should, in future elections for both House and Senate. That’s how the mandate of the people is delivered in modern Australian democracy.