The Australian Model Senate

Article excerpt

This article describes the Australian Model of a Senate and looks at what lessons it might have for discussion of Second Chamber reform in Canada.


Canada and Australia deserve the close comparison they receive. Both were British colonies attracted to the promise of responsible parliamentary government around the mid-19th century. Both are federations. Both are members of the Commonwealth. Both are constitutional monarchies. And both have had to struggle for many of the rights of self-government.

Canada as the older British colony was something of an inspiration to 19th century Australian colonists: 'Canada Bay' in Sydney is named in honour of the Canadian colonists who took temporary refuge in Sydney after the initial failure of the Upper Canada struggles for self-government. Both countries have a long history of stable parliamentary government at both national and provincial/state levels, including early reliance of second chambers at provincial/state level.

But the historical developments diverged at some point, with the Australian colonies/states showing greater interest in modernizing and democratizing their second chambers. By contrast, Canadian provincial second chambers were discarded: a process that only one Australian state (Queensland) has followed.

Over recent decades, many of the Australian state second chambers have been further reformed to resemble 'the Australian Model' pioneered by the Australian Senate. Thus the Australian Senate should be understood as part of a larger package of bicameral arrangements in the Australian federation. Australian political parties have learnt to use bicameralism for their own purposes: the existence of second chambers is accepted a part of the institutional environment of parliamentary politics and is presumably welcomed by parties, particularly as it increases opportunities for paid public office open to political activists.

A Few Qualifications

A number of qualifications should be mentioned at the outset. 'The Australian Model' is an Australian response to Australian problems, with possible lessons for other countries but probably very few easy or non-controversial applications to non-Australian circumstances. Put simply: 'the Australian Model' is not designed along the lines of any other model, and it is unlikely to perform well as a model for other countries, even so-called Westminster countries, to try to replicate.

Australian parliamentary commentators have increasingly rejected the terms and categories of 'the Westminster system' because Australian political practices do not really resemble those of classic Westminster. The presence of an elected Senate in a constitutionally-entrenched federal parliament is far from classic 'Westminster'. True enough, many governments of the day appeal to Westminster norms when trying to justify the prevailing power of the political executive in what is loosely called a regime of 'responsible government'. Also true is that opposition parties often appeal to 'Westminster' norms to justify an increased share of parliamentary power by non-government parties. The fact that Australian governments so rarely share significant parliamentary power with opposition parties suggests the limits of the 'Westminster' analogy for Australian politics.

The current characteristics 'the Australian Model' have developed or grown up in the 107 years since Australian Federation in 1901, reflecting the work of many generations of parliamentary actors. These actors built on the constitutional foundations spelt out in the 1901 Constitution for the Commonwealth of Australia but often in ways not necessarily anticipated by the constitutional framers. Although the black-letter provisions of the Australian Constitution might not have changed all that much since 1901, the practical operations of the Australian Senate most certainly have. These institutional changes have been driven partly by changes in parliamentary law on such core operational issues as electoral mechanisms and driven partly by changes in the parliamentary ambition of the political parties competing for place and power in Australian politics. …