The record for successful referendums in Australia is a pretty poor one – just eight out of 44 proposals.
The reason for the low success rate is probably a combination of several factors, which add up to a nation which is more than reluctant to alter the document on which its national government operates.
These factors, in no particular order, include the foresight and wisdom of the founding fathers who wrote a workable set of laws; the innate conservatism and common sense of the Australian people; the Australian people’s innate distrust of politicians, and their extreme caution in changing the delicate balance of power.
Interestingly one of the surest signs of the mature stage of Federal governments is their desire to tamper, or rather “reform”, our Constitution.
Clearly the Howard administration, which turns eight early next year, has reached that stage.
The rules of the game are discovered to be too restrictive, too cumbersome, and unhelpful to the progress of “good governance”.
Yet it seems that John Howard himself doesn’t have his heart completely set on winning the latest governmental attempt to give more power to the executive by cutting back the power of the Senate.
In the Parliamentary speech in which he introduced his draft proposals, Mr Howard spent considerable time recalling, or perhaps reminding himself, just how difficult it was to change Australia’s Constitution.
Mr Howard’s first attempt at what was a fairly innocuous change to the Constitution’s Preamble failed, so perhaps this has tempered his enthusiasm.
The Prime Minister recalled how he had even stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Labor man (and former Sydney Lord Mayor) Doug Sutherland back in Sydney handing out how-to-vote cards for the failed 1967 referendum on the “Nexus” question (changing the balance in the numbers between the Senate and House of Representatives).
And well Mr Howard might have recalled this referendum because it was perhaps the most extraordinary of all the 36 lost referendums.
It had the support of both the major political parties; there was no organised “no case” at all; and the other question of the day (to recognise the democratic rights of Aboriginal people) was passed with the largest majority of any referendum question in our history.
Almost 60 per cent of Australians and five states voted down the Nexus question, yet 91 per cent and all states voted in favour of the Aboriginal proposal.
The lessons from the 1967 referendum were that Australian voters are more discerning about these big questions than the politicians give them credit for; they are particularly suspicious when both major parties support any particular proposal; and they are extremely reluctant to reduce the power of the Senate.
Which brings us to Mr Howard’s proposals (so far in draft form) to find a way of unblocking an obstructive Senate.
Mr Howard wants to allow for a special joint sitting of the Parliaments to pass bills which have been twice rejected by the Senate, without the current need to call a double dissolution of both houses.
Mr Howard argues, though not very convincingly, that the Senate is an impediment to good government and that it continues to hamper his government’s ability to put its policies into law.
The facts are that the Howard Government has been extremely successful in enacting its program, it has brought in a new tax system, a new industrial relations system. It has radically altered the public service, the immigration laws, it has privatised Telstra (but still has a 50 per cent share in the company), and it has overhauled just about every aspect of government.
In actual numbers it has been successful in getting 98 per cent of all legislation through the Senate.
What it hasn’t got through are a few minor, but niggling pieces of legislation, not least of which is its proposal to except small business from unfair dismissal laws.
Other recent “problem” bills include its proposal to lift the price of government-subsidised drugs and to make it tougher for people to get the disability pension.
None of these are earth-shatteringly important, but are a constant source of annoyance and encumbrance on the executive which is able to ride roughshod over the House of Representatives.
But the virtues or problems with the legislation are quite irrelevant to the current debate.
What the Howard Government is failing to see is that one day it will fall, and a Labor Government will be in power.
Would it be so enthusiastic about giving a Labor government absolute power?
The Senate provides a check on the power of the executive; it gives the Parliament a chance to weigh up and consider laws and to temper rash legislation.
For all but a few years of the last 50 years the government of the day has not had majority in the Senate, so it has always had one party or another or a group of independents holding up proceedings in the Senate.
Yet for the most part governments have been able to govern well and have been able to implement their programs.
Nobbling the Senate will make the Upper House totally irrelevant and redundant.
It would create a dangerous power shift towards the executive and would change the balance of power irrevocably.
Labor is showing some enthusiasm for the Prime Minister’s proposals (it actually wants even more changes put in the proposed referendum), which means both major parties could be supporting the change.
Hopefully, the Australian people with their good sense and basic understanding of the role of the Senate will follow the precedent of 1967 and reject the proposal.