Odgers' Australian Senate Practice, 13th Edition

By O'Brien, Gary W. | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Odgers' Australian Senate Practice, 13th Edition


O'Brien, Gary W., Canadian Parliamentary Review


Odgers' Australian Senate Practice, 13th Edition, edited by Harry Evens and Rosemary Laing, Canberra: Department of the Senate, 2012, 942 pages

The publication of Odgers" Australian Senate Practice, 13th edition is a wonderful tribute to James Rowland Odgers, Clerk of the Australian Senate from 1965 to 1979, and to Harry Evens, also Clerk of the Senate from 1988 to 2009. Odgers, who began compiling this parliamentary authority in 1953, edited five versions of the book with the sixth being produced in 1991 following his death but based on material he had prepared. Evens, the longest serving Senate Clerk, wrote all subsequent editions, co-editing the thirteenth with the current Senate Clerk, Dr. Rosemary Laing who has had twenty-two years' experience working in the Senate. The book will undoubtedly prove invaluable to their President and committee chairs, assisting them to resolve questions on how their legislature should proceed on the business before them as well as to students of constitutionalism who monitor the Senate as to how well it fulfills its constitutional functions vis-a-vis the executive, the House of Representatives and the judiciary.

But the book is primarily addressed to Australian senators and its most valuable contribution lies in its unsaid encouragement to them to develop loyalty to the institution, its purposes, and bicameralism. As Dr. Laing states in the Preface, it not only provides an account of the practices and procedures of the Senate, but also describes "its place in the framework of the Australian Constitution." Australia, which was the first Westminster style Parliament to have a popularly elected upper house, is only one of five contemporary regimes that the eminent political scientist Arend Lijphart has categorized as "strong bicameralism", the others being Columbia, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States (Patterns of Democracy, 1999). Although the dedication found in the twelfth edition has been dropped, this new edition continues the tradition established by Odgers of explaining the rationale of bicameralism, the functions of the Senate and keeps current the chronology of how the Senate has exercised its powers from 1901 to 2012.

On the surface one would assume that Odgers' would have little relevance for the Canadian Senate as the two chambers are so different. Australian senators are elected for six year terms based on a system of proportional representation with preferential voting, while Canadian senators are appointed until the age of seventy-five. About one-quarter to one-third of the ministry sits in the Australian Senate while in Canada, with the exception of 2006-2008 when Michel Fortier also sat in cabinet, the Leader of the Government has served as the sole minister since 1984. For reasons that merit further study, the Australian Senate amends many more bills than its Canadian counterpart. For example in 2010, Australian senators made 416 amendments to 40 bills while Canadian senators only made 17 amendments to 10 bills. Unlike in Canada, the Australian Senate has used its legislative powers to delay approval of supply. In 1975 this precipitated a serious constitutional crisis and led to the dismissal of the government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. As well, minor political parties are invariably represented in the Australian Senate while the Canadian Senate has a two-party system, although at times with a number of independents.

Notwithstanding these important differences, the similarities between the two institutions are quite striking. As Meg Russell notes in Reforming the House of Lords (2000), the Australian and Canadian Senates are bound up with the history and traditions of their countries in that they represent the development of their federal systems. In both countries, the founding fathers spent most of their time in constitutional discussions on the composition and powers of the upper house, and without an agreement on their Senates there would have been no Commonwealth of Australia or Dominion of Canada. …

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