Obstructing government or stopping bullies: What do Australians think about government control of the Senate?

Shaun Wilson, Australian National University

For some time, we have known that the government is unhappy with the Senate’s obstructive ways. Certainly, the Senate has rejected some of the government’s favourite legislation, particularly its unfair dismissals legislation, for a third time. So when Prime Minister John Howard criticised the Senate for holding up his government’s work, he only repeated his predecessor’s anger at the Senate, on the memorable occasion when Keating called it ‘unrepresentative swill’. Howard claims: ‘Tragically for Australia the Australian Senate in recent years, so far from being a state’s house or a house of review, has become a house of obstruction’ (Howard 2003). His proposed remedy would allow joint sittings of parliament without a double dissolution should the government’s legislation be rejected twice (2003). The Australian Labor Party may end up supporting the proposal, drawing on lingering bitterness towards the Senate for its role in the 1975 constitutional crisis. Naturally, the Greens and Democrats, the two dominant minor parties in the Senate, oppose proposals for constitutional reform that would domesticate the Senate’s place in contemporary politics.

Is Howard right to call the Senate a house of obstruction? On most of the government’s major reforms: the Workplace Relations Act, the GST, and the partial privatization of Telstra, the Senate has eventually passed amended legislation. No Senate during the Howard years has ultimately blocked a major piece of legislation in the way conservatives forced Gough Whitlam’s Labor government to a double dissolution in 1974 so that he could enact Medibank in a joint sitting. We can hardly put the government’s unfair dismissals legislation in the same league as the Medibank scheme, and the Democrats agreed to the major planks of the Government's industrial relations legislation during Howard's first term. Moreover, United States researcher Stanley Bach’s soon-to-be published research shows that the government increasingly relies on Labor’s co-operation in the Senate to pass its legislation. As Labor acquiesces, the government’s potential allies against Senate ‘obstruction’ only grow.

Government Control of the Senate, Big Interests, and Public Opinion

A plurality of Australians prefer a non-government controlled Senate.

Does the public share the Howard view of the Senate? Opinion data from the Australian Election Study (AES) 2001 (Bean et al. 2002) show that they largely do not. The survey asks ‘Which do you think is better—when the federal government has a majority in both the Houses of Representatives and the Senate, or when the federal government in the House of Representatives does not control the Senate?’ Surprisingly, nearly half Australians surveyed (44 per cent) prefer it that the government does not control the Senate (see Table 1). Only a third of Australians are in favour of a Senate controlled by the same party with a majority in the House of Representatives. Even if we accept that a large number of respondents interpret this question party-politically, and assume the question means this government controlling the Senate, we do not find convincing support for government control among its most obvious constituency—the government’s own voters. Table 1 shows that barely 50 per cent of respondents who voted for the Liberal-National Coalition in 2001 supported their own party also controlling the Senate.

Why do Australians prefer a different balance of power in the Senate if minority-controlled Senates only obstruct? We might find an answer in the Australian public’s view about who benefits from the way government runs. Another question in the AES gives us a handle on this. The survey asks, ‘Would you say the government is run by a few big interests looking after themselves, or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?’ Just under half of the public (48 per cent) thinks the government is run for big interests—and only a small minority (seventeen per cent) think it is run for all the people. Another third think governments are half run by big interests, and half for all people. These numbers are hardly encouraging for any government seeking to consolidate its own capacity to govern, and to pass legislation without too much obstruction.

Table 1: Public Opinion on Government Control of the Australian Senate
government control
Doesn't support
government control
doesn't matter
Run for big interests (n=903) 25 52 23
About half and half (n=692) 41 36 24
Run for the benefit for all (n=317) 48 38 14
Total 34 44 22
2001 House of Representatives vote  
ALP 23 52 25
Liberal 51 32 17
National 49 33 17
Green 15 64 21
Democrat 12 73 15
One Nation 19 52 30
Source: AES 2001.

When we break down respondent support for government control of the Senate by their corresponding views about who benefits from the way government runs, we get closer to the heart of public resistance to government controlled Senates. Table 1 shows that among people who think government is run for the big interests, a majority wants the Senate to be in different hands, while a quarter of the same group support government control. By contrast, the small number of respondents who think government is run for everyone also tend to support government control of the Senate. One plausible reading of these results is that the public sees the Senate as a way of affecting how government is run, and whose interests it ultimately serves. Accordingly, the public may view the Senate both normatively and tactically: normatively because they value the reviewing—and even obstructing—function of the Senate as part of the democratic process; tactically because they see the Senate limiting government power. Seeing the Senate tactically shows up in the way we vote, as Table 2 shows. For the plurality of voters who prefer a non-government controlled Senate, the combined Green and Democrat vote climbs to almost 30 per cent.

Table 2: Senate Voting by views about
Government Control of the Senate
2001 Senate vote Support
government control
Doesn't support
government control
doesn't matter
ALP 23 35 41
Liberal 62 23 34
National 6 3 3
Green 3 12 6
Democrat 2 17 6
One Nation 2 7 4

  Source: AES 2001.

A Positive and a Negative Case for a Minority Senate

The evidence I have put together suggests Australians do not share the Prime Minister’s view. A plurality of Australians prefer a non-government controlled Senate, and this is the strong preference of a large number of Australians who think government is run by for big interests. Perhaps we can speak of a positive and a negative case for a non-government controlled Senate. The positive case is well represented by Ian Marsh (1997), who argues that the Senate has become more and more relevant to a diverse society where pluralities of interests flourish, and demand some parliamentary representation. By tracing out the practical ways the Senate goes about its business, Marsh sees it advancing the functions and values of a liberal society: greater tolerance for debate and dissent, and opportunities for small and minority interests to find their way into parliamentary structures. No doubt these views prevail among the liberal-minded supporters of the Democrats and the Greens.

The Australian public doesn’t think government is run for all people.

Such arguments must, however, be set in a larger context, one attentive to the balance of economic and social power with which parliaments must contend. The Australian public doesn’t think government is run for all people. Many of us think governments are run for big interests. My opinion is that the Australian public is keenly aware of the power of dominant business and media interests, and that these interests do not necessarily coincide with the broader public interest. Michael Pusey makes the case that these dominant interests have been very strongly reinforced by the process of elite-run economic reform (Pusey 2003). I share his view. And so we can mark out a negative case for a non-government controlled Senate, one that seems to be understood by Australians who think power is too concentrated, and who view the Senate as a vital, if only partial, check on executive power, and the broader interests of power and money that most easily gain the ear of government.

Strange corroboration of the negative case comes from Prime Minister John Howard himself, who, like any good rhetorician, pays deceptive courtesy to the opposing argument. Howard rejects proposals for changing Senate voting methods to produce major-party majorities, an alternative way of ensuring a more pliable Senate. He goes on: ‘I think it’s unfair and it’s undemocratic. And I think the innate sense of fair play of most Australians would react to the big boys as they would describe them ganging up on the smaller parties’ (Howard 2003). Is there a difference between producing a single party dominated Senate so that legislation sails through it and over-riding the repeated denials of one elected in the present, proportional way? The latter might convey the same sense of ‘ganging up’, seen not only as a sleight against minor parties but against a greater public will. My point is that Howard picks up the theme, and then surely finds a false target. The public isn’t really worried about how governments bully minor parties. They are more concerned when governments do the bullying for even bigger bullies, and we all end up with policies that do not reflect the public interest.

What are Labor's possible interests in supporting Howard's proposals if they are likely to improve Howard's chances of passing legislation ALP has thus far blocked? One obvious reason is that, like the current Government, future Labor legislative programs would be enhanced by greater Senate control. But there is also a less obvious reason. In the present circumstances, the Labor opposition in the Senate must answer to a much larger constituency, coming under pressure from other interests to oppose legislation, especially from the union movement. The party finds it difficult to satisfy its broad constituency by opposing legislation and keep powerful interests—especially big business—satisfied. By increasing the relative power of the House of Representatives, Labor no longer is forced to play a delicate Senate game. But a weakened Senate shifts the balance of politcal power away from representing plural interests, so future Labor governments would be under less pressure to limit ‘top-down’ politics.

Would the world be any different if the Senate could not block legislation? Think of some of the larger vision that the current government wishes to pursue in the face of Senate difficulty: a unitary grid of industrial relations legislation and the full privatisation of Telstra. Unquestionably, these are not only the preferred policies of the current government but of the dominant forces of big business. Howard says constitutional reforms like the one he proposes are notoriously difficult to pass. He is right—large numbers of Australians don’t share his views about the Senate because they don’t share his views about power.


Bean C., Gow, D. & McAllister, I. 2002, Australian Election Study, 2001 [computer file], Australian Social Science Data Archive, The Australian National University, Canberra [Online], Available: http://assda.anu.edu.au/codebooks/aes2001/title.html [2003, June 12].

Howard, J. 2003, Transcript of the Prime Minister The Hon John Howard MP – Closing Address to the Liberal Party National Convention, Adelaide, South Australia, 8 June.

Marsh, I. 1997, Beyond the Two Party System, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Pusey, M. 2003, The Experience of Middle Australia: The Dark Side of Economic Reform, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Shaun Wilson is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Research in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. He is a Principal Investigator of the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes.