WWDA Liberating The Commonwealth: How Refusing To Surrender Parliament To Majority Parties And Interests Will Mostly Free It From Destructive Stand-Offs Between Its Houses


On 8 October 2003 the Prime Minister released ‘Resolving deadlocks: a discussion paper on section 57 of the Australian Constitution’. This paper considers additional options for resolution of deadlocks between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Section 57 currently provides for deadlocks between the House of Representatives and the Senate to be resolved by a double dissolution election. The first option canvassed by the discussion paper would allow the Governor General to convene a joint sitting of both houses to consider a deadlocked bill, without the need for an election. The second option would allow the Governor General to convene a joint sitting of both houses after an ordinary general election. This is WWDA’s Submission to the ‘Resolving Deadlocks’ Discussion Paper. This Submission was researched and written by Samantha Salvaneschi, for Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) Inc. Copyright WWDA 2003.


Synopsis

Women With Disabilities (Australia) Inc. is a not-for-profit organisation constituted and driven by women with disabilities. Its members and managers are all women with disabilities. It also has many associate members, which include Australian and overseas banks, research institutes, community services, students, and others who are supporters of human rights for women with disabilities.

This paper is a Submission in response to Resolving Deadlocks: A discussion paper on section 57 of the Australian Constitution, authored by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Women With Disabilities (Australia) is making this Submission, because women with disabilities disproportionately experience breaches of their citizenship right to participate in democratic decision-making. These breaches occur at all levels of Australian society, including the national parliamentary one. Where the Submission recommends reforms, it clearly evidences why they are practicable, cost-effective ones, required in the interests of democracy.


Acknowledgements and Disclaimer

Women With Disabilities (Australia) gratefully acknowledges the support it received in 2003 from the Global Fund For Women, the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services and the expertise it receives daily from women with disabilities. Without these contributions, the policy advocacy of Women With Disabilities (Australia) – such as this Submission – would not be possible.

Women With Disabilities (Australia) Inc. is a member-driven, independent body with no affiliations with any political party. Its members, Executive Officer and Committee of Management members are all women with disabilities. They have identified engendering leadership capacities among women with disabilities, as one of the organisation’s policy priorities for 2003 to 2008.

Consequently, Women With Disabilities (Australia) is very committed to policy advocacy on the protection of the human rights of women with disabilities to participate in their nation-state’s political processes.

Women With Disabilities (Australia) Inc. has published this Submission to advance this policy advocacy. The organisation hopes that the Submission will be of value to women with disabilities; advocates; policy-makers; researchers; philanthropists; and members of industries, professions and other communities of interest.


Recommendations

Recommendation 1: Make the Upper House Proportionally Representative
Make the House of Representatives constituted by a Proportional Representation voting system, like the Senate, after a Constitutional Convention on this reform, including its content and its implementation process.

Recommendation 2: Replace dissolutions with joint sittings
Abolish the Executive’s power to dominate the Senate as well as the House of Representatives by replacing the power to dissolve both Houses with a joint sitting.

Recommendation 3: Form an all-party Business Committee
Establish an all-party Business Committee, like that in Scotland’s Parliament. Such a Business Committee would require the whole Parliament’s regular endorsement of its plans.

Recommendation 4: Increase non-government business in parliament
Amend the Parliament’s standing orders to require that a greater proportion of parliamentary time is devoted to non-government business.

Recommendation 5: Gear Question Time to Executive accountability
Restrict Question Time to genuine questions without notice, with a majority going to the Opposition.

Recommendation 6: Ensure bills are developed publicly and transparently
Legislate to mandate that bills introduced by the Executive undergoes substantial development, including consultation through the relevant committees, interest groups and the general public, before it become a bill.

Recommendation 7: Limit Government Speakers on Government Bills
Amend the Parliament’s standing orders to limit the number of speakers on legislation and to ensure that an equal or near-equal number of members from both sides contribute to the quorum.

Recommendation 8: Enable private bills to be brought before Parliament
Statutorily provide for private bills that allow private citizens or groups (with sufficient backing) to bring certain matters before the Parliament, probably through sponsoring Members of Parliament.

Recommendation 9: Provide for Committee-initiated law
Give committees the power to initiate legislation arising from their inquiries, especially if the government has failed to respond to major recommendations.

Recommendation 10: Bolster the Senate as a House of Review
Devote the second chamber to a more extensive deliberation of the bills in committee.

Recommendation 11: Entrench proper investigation of citizens’ petitions
Enact a requirement that all petitions be properly investigated, and by special hearings of a dedicated petitions’ committee in those circumstances that meet criteria enshrined in legislation.

Recommendation 12: Strengthen freedom of information legislation
Reduce the number of Freedom of Information law exemptions from disclosure.

Recommendation 13: Increase the scrutiny power of committees
Statutorily empower joint estimates and legislation committees to question public servants and ministers from either House and to take submissions and commission independent research.

Recommendation 14: Commission and promote citizen forums
Establish and resource juries or deliberative polls and other civic and youth forums to enable more regular and efficient consultation with the public.

Recommendation 15: Open up the Chambers to the People
Require community representatives and other experts to address both Chambers in session and engage in debate with House of Representative members and Senators, when the Senate sends bills back to the House of Representatives.


Introduction

The concurrence of a plurality of authorities in legislation is a necessary condition of truly constitutional government in any community, whether it is federal or unitary. If the whole legislative power is vested in a single authority it is a form of absolutism, whether the authority be a single man, or the majority of a single assembly. But if provision is made in the composition of the legislative authority for securing the concurrence of distinct majorities representing distinct social forces and interests, the government is constitutional. Andrew Inglis Clark. 1901. Studies in Australian Constitutional Law.

Women With Disabilities (Australia) Inc. is a not-for-profit organisation constituted and driven by women with disabilities. Its members and managers are all women with disabilities. This Submission is in response to Resolving Deadlocks: A discussion paper on section 57 of the Australian Constitution, authored by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and published earlier this year. The ‘deadlocks’ to which the Discussion Paper refers are those that are provided for by Section 57. In basic terms, Section 57 provides that the Governor-General may dissolve both the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously (otherwise known as the Upper and Lower Houses, respectively), if the Senate, with an intervening interval of three months, twice rejects a law proposed by the House of Representatives, or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree.

It also provides that the Governor-General may convene a joint session of the two Houses to vote on the proposed law, if the disagreement persists after the election of a new Parliament. If the law is then passed by an absolute majority of the total number of members of both Houses, it becomes law after receiving the Royal assent.

The Discussion Paper proposes amendments to section 57. The Submission suggests that this is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of preventing and breaking these deadlocks between the Houses. It contends that, if these deadlocks are to be properly prevented and broken, there must be rigorous and well-informed debate between advisors to the parliament and Members of the Parliament.

It also argues that these advisors and members must begin to substantially represent the multiplicity of diverse citizens that make up contemporary Australia. It points out that minorities are willing and able to participate in such parliamentary debate. It suggests that they have amply demonstrated this via the comprehensive social changes they have wrought via their protests (Tully, 1995; Mauss, 1975; Edelman, 1971).

In consequence, the Submission recommends changes to the Upper and Lower Houses that will pluralise the Parliament and in ways that will prevent, and more effectively resolve, most deadlocks.


Why Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is making this Submission

Women With Disabilities (Australia) has made this Submission for a number of important reasons.

First and foremost, the Submission was developed because women with disabilities disproportionately experience breaches of their citizenship right to participate in democratic decision-making processes. These breaches occur in all parts of Australian society, including workplaces; unions; public services such as schools and employment agencies; local and state government forums; and national parliamentary processes (Frohmader, 2002; Newell, 2002; Altman, 1998; Meekosha and Jakubowicz, 1996; Graycar and Morgan, 1990).

This is also the case among other disadvantaged minorities. For example, first and second generation migrants from non-English Speaking Backgrounds, are under-represented in all senior decision-making agencies in Australia, including corporate boards, the judiciary, the police, the military, the universities, the public services and parliaments (Frohmader, 2002; Meekosha and Dowse, 1997; Zappal�, 1997; Woldring, 1994; Bird 1993; Bird, 1992; Bird, 1990; Graycar and Morgan 1990; Sadurski, 1989).

It is hoped that the Australian government will find the Submission a valuable reference in its deliberations on section 57.

Second, Women With Disabilities (Australia) (WWDA) has made this Submission, because one of the WWDA policy priorities for 2003 to 2008 is the cultivation of leadership capacities among women with disabilities. This priority was identified earlier this year by the organisation’s large and diverse membership base, Committee of Management members and Executive Officer.

Further, WWDA has conducted much policy advocacy in the past on women with disabilities and their participation in political processes (see, for example, Toovey, 1997). Consequently, Women With Disabilities (Australia) is very committed to policy advocacy on the protection of the human right of women with disabilities to participate in national and other political processes.

Third, WWDA hopes that the Submission will be of value to women with disabilities; advocates; policy-makers; researchers; philanthropists; and members of industries, professions and other communities of interest.

Fourth, WWDA has achieved privileged access to the evidence that underpins policy advocacy for women with disabilities – like this Submission – because of its strong and multiple communication channels with women with disabilities and their supporters. These ongoing communications yield rich data, not least because the members are women living with a wide range of disabilities, in a spectrum of circumstances. Similarly, the associate membership is comprised of a vast array of individuals, networks and organisations. They are located all over rural, regional and urban parts of Australia and the world.

The corporate associate members include financial institutions, research centres, municipal councils, medical services and other so-called ‘mainstream’ service providers. They are also bodies that are dedicated to particular marginalised groups. These include migrant resource centres; refuges for Indigenous women and children; health services; lobby groups for people who identify as queer; and others.

WWDA Submissions are also informed by WWDA’s ongoing contacts with government and non-government organisations that may or may not be associate members. These organisations are ones that profoundly affect the rights of people with disabilities. The government ones include the Department of Communications, Arts and Information Technology; the Department of Family and Community Services; the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission; State and Territory agencies for health and community services; and local government authorities.

The non-government organisations encompass Disabled Peoples International; the National Justice Coalition for Women; the Australian Local Government Association; the (Victorian) Action for Disability in Ethnic Communities; trade unions; and professional associations.

WWDA is also sure to keep abreast of secondary evidence on issues that are highly pertinent to women with disabilities, such as the accessibility of political decision-making processes to women with disabilities. (For more information on Women With Disabilities (Australia), please see Appendix 2, at page 26 of this Submission.)


What this Submission means by ‘disability’ and ‘accessibility’

The concept of disability traditionally implies a focus on the person with a disability lacking the full spectrum of abilities that are supposed to be possessed by every human. Consensus has now shifted to what is referred to as a social model of disability (Newell, 2002; Jones and Marks, 1999).

In this model, a disability is experienced as an impediment, partially or wholly because of human-made structures of the state, civil society and the economy that disproportionately privilege people who are without disabilities for now, at the expense of people with disabilities (Newell, 2002; Jones and Marks, 1999).

Within this paper, ‘accessibility’ refers to the degree in which processes and institutions – including constitutional ones – allow people to equitably participate in them and do not compromise their autonomy and dignity (Newell, 2002; Jones and Marks, 1999; Meekosha and Jakubowicz, 1996).


How the Consultation Process was biased against minorities

Regrettably, WWDA can only accurately adjudge the Discussion Paper and other elements of this Consultation Process as ones that are fundamentally inaccessible to most Australians. This is markedly the case for those groups most disadvantaged by socio-economic and cultural structures. The groups include women with disabilities.

The Government seems not to have broadly advertised the Consultation Process. Research by Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) found that many of its members and associate members – many of whom have long been experienced participants in national government processes – had no idea of the very existence of the Discussion Paper or Consultation Process (Salvaneschi, 2003a).

Neither the Discussion Paper nor the Discussion Paper website offer suitable versions of the Paper for people who speak languages other than English, people who are not equipped with the internet or internet skills, people of various literacy, sight and cognitive capacities and people with different levels of government knowledge.

Accordingly, the Paper seems not to have been readily available in formats that meet the requirements of many of the Commonwealth’s own policies and laws or the international human rights law from which they derive. This international law applies to the Commonwealth.

The relevant domestic provisions include:

The applicable international law includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966); the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (1965); the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (1975); the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons (1971); and the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (48/96 of 20 December 1993) see http://www.unhchr.ch.

The public consultation meetings – several of which were attended by a Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) Management Committee member – shared the same flaws as the Paper and the rest of the Consultation Process. That is, the meetings were clearly comprehensible only to a limited range of the most cognitively advanced readers, speakers, and writers of English (Salvaneschi, 2003b). It is regrettable that the Crown seems not to have made the format of at least some of these meetings comply with the spirit of Commonwealth anti-discrimination law.

Even putting aside that not all Australians favour English as their language of discourse, the Consultation Process was endemically oriented towards an exclusive few. The public meetings were ones that doubtless could only be understood by people who have enjoyed a high level of formal or informal education in government affairs.

McAllister (2001) recently conducted robust research that revealed a high level of ignorance among Australians about government. This study questioned a large and representative sample of adult citizens. Fifty-five percent were unaware that the voting system for Senators is a proportional representation one and only five percent were able to correctly answer all of the relatively basic questions on the events, personalities, institutions, procedures and concepts underpinning Australian government institutions (McAllister, 2001).

Thus, the Consultations Process was a grave and obvious mistake by its architects. It seems that they must be unaware of, and/or recklessly indifferent to, the vast array of evidence from around the world that the decline in political participation and knowledge is most pronounced among the young and among those with the least education, money and connections (McAllister, 2001; Williams, 1998; Zappal�, 1997; Tully, 1995).

Put shortly, the Process was a compelling illustration of Kuklinski’s and Quirk’s insight that: Citizen competence is largely a function of the political environment, which often gives the citizen difficult tasks and little support for reforming them (2001). Moreover, it is an instance of the tendency of current constitutional arrangements to substantially include only those groups that have dominated their construction.

It is well documented that those people who have dominated constitutional government in Australia are men in their forties who are white and middle class and, usually, businessmen and/or lawyers (Sawer, 1998; Williams, 1998; Meekosha and Dowse, 1997; Zappal�, 1997; Tully, 1995; Sullivan, 1994).

This is the ‘homosociality’ that has significantly reduced the quality of debate in parliament and other government decision-making forums (Bird, 1996; Tremblay, 1998; Trimble, 1998; Tully, 1995). The dominant groups tend to fashion government processes in their own image and, thereby, render them exclusionary of people who are not, in the main, like themselves (McAllister, 2001; Jones and Marks 1999; Lijphart, 1999; Sawer, 1998; Tremblay, 1998; Trimble, 1998; Williams, 1998; Meekosha and Dowse, 1997; Zappal�, 1997; Meekosha and Jakubowicz, 1996; Bird, 1996; Tully, 1995; Sullivan, 1994; Graycar and Morgan, 1990).

Such reduced, homogenising law- and policy-making is utterly antithetical to the pluralism that theorists, politicians and other citizens at every point of the political spectrum have long accepted as a fundamental prerequisite of liberal democratic government (Sawer, 1998; Williams, 1998; Zappal�, 1997; Held, 1996; Tully, 1995; Sullivan, 1994; Graycar and Morgan, 1990).


The poverty of the Discussion Paper’s proposed amendments

The amendments to section 57 of the Australian Constitution proposed by the Discussion Paper (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2003) are unduly narrow and weak ways of resolving the deadlocks. This is so for three principal reasons.

First, the proposed amendments presume and reinforce the dominance of the Parliament by the two-party system and the Executive (Chalmers and Davis, 2000) and the unrepresentative character of the two Houses, especially the House of Representatives. Second, the amendments are predicated on an uncritical and erroneous (Lijphart, 1999) premise that the Government is voted in by the majority of the people, who, thereby, mandating for all citizens, the whole of an unambiguous and clearly evident policy platform (Goot, 1999; Robinson, 1999).

Third, the amendments are grounded in a problematic belief, made explicit by the Discussion Paper, that minority parties are necessarily unrepresentative of the sovereign will of the people simply by virtue of the fact that they are minority parties who were voted for by a minority of people. This is a particularly problematic and fundamental element of the rationales the Discussion Paper puts for the amendments.

It completely ignores or dismisses hundreds of years of democratic thinking and practices about the imperative of preventing parliaments from becoming tyrannies of the majority, trampling minorities’ rights. It also erases from view the centuries old tenet that parliaments should effectively incorporate members that together represent plural interests (Bartlett, 1999; Margetts, 1999; Sawer, 1999; Held, 1996).

This Submission poses an alternative to these democratically stunting fixes. In summary, this counter-proposal is based on the claim that counter-productive disputes between the Houses of Parliament can be avoided, to a significant degree, if the Parliament:

  • ceases to overwhelmingly over-represent the interests of the two major parties, their principal donors and other majority groups in Australian society.
  • redresses the under-representation of the interests of minorities in the Lower and Upper Houses.
  • achieves both by reforming the constitutional arrangements that form the Senate and House of Representatives.

How the Lower House and the Major Parties deadlock the Houses

The airing of diverse perspectives and the participation of diverse citizen groups in decision-making on legislative bills are severely fettered by this homosociality. The parliamentary process is captured by a few major parties, the majority groups that finance, staff and stand for them, and the majority interests that they overwhelmingly represent (Phillips, 1995; Pateman, 1979). This cannot make for dynamic discussion that throws up many ways of reaching a ‘good enough’ consensus between the Houses of Parliament on the content of law.

The Discussion Paper’s proposed amendments are based on a precept that it is the minority party Senators that are principally responsible for deadlocking the Houses. It is suggested that they are blameworthy because they are frustrating the mandate of the elected Government, a major party or coalition of major parties.

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) regards this as a furphy refuted by a raft of empirical evidence. This evidence indicates that the problem lies not with minority parties but with the two-party system; the homosociality of the major parties (Sawer, 1998; Williams, 1998; Zappal�, 1997); a House of Representatives that is not constituted by a proportional representation voting system (Evans (ed.), 2001; Lijphart, 1999); and naive assumptions about electoral mandates (Faulkner, 1999; Goot, 1999; Robinson, 1999).

How the Executive, the few major parties and other powerful groups deadlock Parliament

History shows that parliamentarians tend to reflect the interests of their party and the majority groups to which they belong, when they are making their attempts to help resolve (or perpetuate) deadlocks between the Houses.

As Alfred Deakin forecast at the 1897 Constitutional Convention, years before he became Prime Minister:

Any contention between the two houses, will not and cannot arise upon questions in regard to which states will be ranked against states…the whole of the states will be divided into two parties. Contests between the two houses will only arise when one party is in majority in one chamber and the other in the possession of a majority in the other chamber…(quoted by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2003).

Consequently, there is little chance that parliamentarians will raise a multiplicity of options for the possible content of legislative bills. Therefore, the debate of options that would avoid impasses in the passage of legislation – much less options that would meet the needs and aspirations of minority groups – are precluded by the two major parties that dominate the Houses. This is especially the case in the Lower House, because it is not formed by a proportional representation system.

Accordingly, political commentators and other citizens often regard contemporary representative democracies as non-participatory and elitist.

In such democracies, citizens, especially the ones from minority groups, are relatively minor and passive. At best, they are mostly unheard monitors of the elites and technocrats who do the actual governing. The dominating, active political actors are ones from state agencies, private corporations and the professions (Phillips, 1995; Pateman, 1979; Miliband, 1969).

State bureaucracies both prepare and implement policies, and exercise administrative discretion in areas such as income support and law and order. Governments proclaim laws and policies (Ginsberg, 1982; Macpherson, 1972). Corporations make choices to invest in some material resources, some recruits, some research and development and some products and services, over others. They also decide to propagate and naturalise certain lines of argument through mass media advertisements.

Professions monopolise the provision of particular services, such as medical and legal advice. They wield disproportionate influence over parliamentary and government decisions on these services that apply to all citizens (Derber et al., 1990; Larson, 1977).

Further, there is a host of measures taken in liberal democracies to repress political opposition (Justice Murphy, R v. Neal, 1982). Most of these measures – powers of arrest, detention, covert surveillance and restrictions on public access to information gathered on citizens – are taken by state agencies, especially by particular units of the police, military and intelligence agencies. The extent of this repression is significant (Goldstein, 1978; Wolfe, 1973) but has been downplayed by most theorists of liberal society (Martin, 1994; Martin et al 1986; McCamant, 1984).

Elite groups manipulate media and other tools of power to define citizen protests as challenges to existing structures made by members and supporters of weaker groups in society, such as women, people with disabilities and other minorities. Conversely, the political manoeuvres of dominant groups, often behind closed doors, are not so defined (Barber, 2003; Bongiorno, Grattan and Langerman. 1999; Martin, 1994; Popkin, 1991; Bagdikian,1990; Herman and Chomsky, 1988; Herman, 1982).

For example, ministers and tabloid commentators portray people blocking the passage of inaccessible public transport vehicles as jeopardies to law and order. Meanwhile, the same opinion-makers do not cast the hidden, uncontested deals between governments and big businesses as something that is not in the public interest (Barber, 2003; Bongiorno, Grattan and Langerman. 1999; Martin, 1994; Bagdikian,1990; Herman and Chomsky, 1988; Herman, 1982).

State power, such as defunding and deregistration is sometimes used against dissenting groups who ‘protest’ (Justice Murphy, R v. Neal, 1982). By contrast, judicial officers and others seldom contemplate prison terms for corrupt politicians or corporate executives flouting the law (Martin, 1994; Barak, 1991; Martin et al 1986). Professionals who resist government decisions via orthodox government channels are hardly ever threatened with deregistration (Martin, 1994; Parkin, 1979).

This delegitimisation of the political participation of minority groups occurs, even though minorities often possess relatively limited options, other than direct protest. They are very seldom people who are empowered to become parliamentarians or participate in political party structures (Frohmader, 2002; Meekosha and Dowse, 1997; Phillips, 1995; The Interparliamentary Union, 1994; Pateman, 1979).

After all, even those who are elected to Parliament find that their contribution and that of the parliament as a whole is much more limited than the theories of representative government suggest (Lawrence, 2003; Evans, 1999).

The limited review power of the Senate

The core function of upper houses in bicameral parliaments is review of the lower house bills. The Senate frequently undertakes reviews of the kind Sir Henry Parkes envisaged when it refers House of Representatives bills to its standing or select committees. Two Senate Standing Committees, in particular, one on Regulations and Ordinances and the other on the Scrutiny of Bills, have proven excellent, independent reviewers of Upper House bills (Evans (ed.), 2001).

Ultimately, however, Lower House Committees have highly attenuated capacities to query ministers and bureaucrats. Further, while the Parliament often seeks the views of communities and of experts in various fields, most of this transpires in committees whose conclusions are usually ignored by the Executive (Lawrence, 2003; Chalmers and Davis, 2000; Evans, 1999).

At the end of the day, the fate of contentious bills is usually determined by the respective voting strengths of the parties on the floor of the House of Representatives, where there is almost no opportunity for individual Members – or even the Opposition en bloc – to introduce or modify legislation (Evans (ed.), 2001).

Scrutiny of the Executive is also limited to Question Time (Evans (ed.), 2001). The answers to the questions are shaped almost exclusively by the agenda of the two major parties, rather than the particularities of electoral constituencies’ interests. Question time is often characterised by accusations instead of questions, replies lacking substance, evasion, obfuscation and gratuitous pillorying of political opponents (Lawrence, 2003).

As Coghill states, the rules for Question Time are so ridiculous it is no surprise that they generate the type of behaviour we see on the nightly news. He concludes, Question Time has degenerated almost to a farce (quoted in Lawrence, 2003). As a result, Question Time rarely performs its intended function of allowing Members to make the Executive and Government account for their decisions.

In this connection, an Australian constitutional expert concludes that:

the domination of the Parliament by a disciplined bipolar party system meant that the House of Representatives came to be seen at worst as a theatre of meaningless ritual and at best as an institution under the foot of the Executive (Thompson, 2001).

This view is one that is oft-repeated across diverse places, classes, genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities and religions (Lawrence, 2003; Thompson, 2001).

In the same vein, the Clerk of the Senate recently commented that: The electors elect a party (or a party leader) to govern. The government governs with total power to change the law and virtually do what it likes between elections (Evans (ed.), 2001).

More specifically, in the authoritative work, Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice (2001, p. 115), the Clerk of the Senate underlines that the High Court’s expanded interpretation of section 57 and its misuse by Prime Ministers has given the Government a de facto power of dissolution over the Senate upon which no constitutional decision-making group of any form has ever decided. A contrary perspective is that the High Court has afforded section 57 a literal rather than expansive interpretation (Lindell, 1989, pp. 158-165).

Both interpretations suggest that the Executive is afforded too much power by section 57.


What reforms are required to free the Parliament of most deadlocks

There is a growing corpus of international research documenting steady, significant increases in protest and direct-action methods via direct contact with politicians and collective action organised by non-government groups. For example, participation in the new social movements, such as the environmental and anti-globalisation ones, has burgeoned (Lawrence, 2003; McAllister, 2000; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1999).

These contemporary participation patterns are pressuring governments to develop forms of more direct, participatory democracy. For example, surveys of the German public indicate that democratic norms are broadening to embrace more participatory forms of democracy (Marsh, 1999; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1999).

The use of referendums and initiatives is generally increasing in democratic nations. Younger generations and the better educated are more likely to favour greater participation by the citizenry, including referendums, internet plebiscites (Lundy, 1999), and other forms of direct democracy (Lawrence, 2003; McAllister, 2000; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1999).

A recent review of the social movement literature highlights other institutional reforms that increase direct citizen participation in policy-making (McAllister, 2000). In Germany, for example, local citizen action groups have won changes in administrative law to allow for citizen participation in local administrative processes. Similarly, Italian environmental legislation now grants individuals legal standing in the courts when they seek to protect the environment from the actions of municipalities or government administrative agencies (McAllister, 2000).

A proportional representation voting system for the Upper House

There is a well-established turnout boost associated with electoral systems based on proportional representation. It has been argued that this is due to otherwise excluded citizens seeking representation from small parties incapable of breaking through in contests that are not based on Proportional Representation. Every person’s vote is actually effective, as it is with Senate voting (Lawrence, 2003; Evans (ed.), 2001).

Moreover, under Proportional Representation, parties have an incentive to inform all voters of their platform, rather than just targeting marginal seat voters. Further, multi-party systems based on Proportional Representation may inhibit precipitous changes in a party’s platform and ‘spin’ with the result that the parties are more of a known quantity to voters (Lawrence, 2003).

Proportional Representation in the Upper House would significantly weaken the choke-hold of the Executive (Chalmers and Davis, 2000; Evans (ed.), 2001, pp. 469-522), major parties and majority interests over both Houses. It would also be very likely to strengthen the parliamentarians’ – including the Executive’s – representation of minority interests. As discussed above, this is likely to make for better-informed and easier resolution of deadlocks between the Houses, because of:

  • the multiple perspectives aired by the diverse parties offer more and better considered provisions with which to draft a consensually acceptable bill (Phillips, 1995; The Interparliamentary Union, 1994; Pateman, 1979).
  • the greater public pressure brought to bear on the parties to arrive at a consensus, due to a multi-party system significantly increasing the number of citizens who are informed observers of parliamentary politics (Lawrence, 2003; McAllister, 2000).

Recommendation 1: Make the House of Representatives constituted by a Proportional Representation voting system, like the Senate, after a Constitutional Convention on the content and the implementation process for this reform.

Joint sittings in lieu of dissolutions

As noted above, many learned constitutional commentators, including the Clerk of the Senate (2001) and Lindell (1989), hold that the Government has considerable discretion over the triggers and timing of double dissolutions, under section 57. This power, as is explained above, greatly increases the possibility of Executive domination of the Senate as well as the House of Representatives.

A joint sitting, in lieu of a dissolution, somewhat redresses this undue and problematic Executive power (Richardson, 2002), although minimally in the absence of other reforms reducing the dominance of the parliament by majority parties and the Executive.

However, without a proportional representation system for the Upper House, there should be a requirement that legislation cannot be passed by a joint sitting, unless an absolute majority of the Government members as well as an absolute majority of all other members vote for it, with all members present and voting, except in the case of so-called ‘conscientious’ votes. For these, members can abstain from voting.

To prevent abuse of this exception, all members must vote on whether a bill shall be the subject of a ‘conscience’ vote.

The provision for ‘conscience’ votes is highly important in a liberal democracy, given liberal democratic traditions have always championed the autonomy of the individual (Held, 1996). Without this provision, members will almost inevitably be held to their parties’ agendas on matters that have long been the domain of conscientious decision-making as well as other matters that move into this domain.

In the case that there is proportional representation in the Lower House, there will be multiple parties in both Houses (Evans, 1999). That is, neither will be dominated by the major parties. Consequently, it is sufficient in this scenario for a bill to be passed by an absolute majority of the members of both Houses, with mandatory voting except for abstentions for ‘conscience’ votes.

Whether or not there is proportional representation in the Lower House, there should be a legislative requirement that community representatives and other experts address both chambers on the merits and demerits of the bill before it is voted on in a joint sitting.

Recommendation 2: Replace dissolution of the parliament with a joint sitting. In the case that there is Proportional Representation in the Lower House, an absolute majority of the members of both Houses should be required to pass a bill in the joint sitting. It should be mandatory for all members to vote, except when they abstain during ‘conscience’ votes.

If there is not Proportional Representation in the Lower House, it should be that the bill can only pass, if it is voted for by a majority of the Government members as well as a majority of the remaining members. Whether or not there is Proportional Representation in the Lower House, there should be a legislative requirement that community representatives and other experts address both chambers on the merits and demerits of the bill before it voted on in a joint sitting.

Related recommendations

The following recommendations are also critical reforms for preventing and resolving deadlocks between the Houses.

Recommendation 3: Form an all-party Business Committee
Establish an all-party Business Committee, like that in Scotland’s Parliament. Such a Business Committee would require the whole Parliament’s regular endorsement of its plans.

Recommendation 4: Increase non-government business in parliament
Amend the Parliament’s standing orders to require that a greater proportion of parliamentary time is devoted to non-government business.

Recommendation 5: Gear Question Time to Executive accountability
Restrict Question Time to genuine questions without notice, with a majority going to the Opposition.

Recommendation 6: Ensure bills are developed publicly and transparently
Legislate to mandate that bills introduced by the Executive undergoes substantial development, including consultation through the relevant committees, interest groups and the general public, before it become a bill.

Recommendation 7: Limit Government Speakers on Government Bills
Amend the Parliament’s standing orders to limit the number of speakers on legislation and to ensure that an equal or near-equal number of members from both sides contribute to the quorum.

Recommendation 8: Enable private bills to be brought before Parliament
Statutorily provide for private bills that allow private citizens or groups (with sufficient backing) to bring certain matters before the Parliament, probably through sponsoring Members of Parliament.

Recommendation 9: Provide for Committee-initiated law
Give committees the power to initiate legislation arising from their inquiries, especially if the government has failed to respond to major recommendations.

Recommendation 10: Bolster the Senate as a House of Review
Devote the second chamber to a more extensive deliberation of the bills in committee.

Recommendation 11: Entrench proper investigation of citizens’ petitions
Enact a requirement that all petitions be properly investigated, and by special hearings of a dedicated petitions’ committee in those circumstances that meet criteria enshrined in legislation.

Recommendation 12: Strengthen freedom of information legislation
Reduce the number of Freedom of Information law exemptions from disclosure.

Recommendation 13: Increase the scrutiny power of committees
Statutorily empower joint estimates and legislation committees to question public servants and ministers from either House and to take submissions and commission independent research.

Recommendation 14: Commission and promote citizen forums
Establish and resource juries or deliberative polls and other civic and youth forums to enable more regular and efficient consultation with the public.

Recommendation 15: Open up the Chambers to the People
Require community representatives and other experts to address both Chambers in session and engage in debate with House of Representative members and Senators, when the Senate sends bills back to the House of Representatives.


Concluding remarks

Parliaments are arguably the most high profile institutions of liberal democratic government. They are the decision-making organs of representative democracies. Yet, the potential for citizen participation in these institutions is highly restricted (Milner, 1998).

Citizens’ opportunities for input into parliamentary processes are mostly limited to casting their vote at periodic elections (Lawrence, 2003, McAllister, 2001). This is especially so for people from socio-economically disadvantaged groups, such as women with disabilities.

Further, the parliamentary representatives of the citizens do not fulsomely debate bills before enacting them. Parliamentarians’ debate is, instead, overwhelmingly limited to the agendas of major parties and other powerful groups (Evans, 1999; Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women. 1995).

Further, the reality of state repression of dissent (George, 1991; Justice Lionel Murphy, R v. Neal (1982); Morland, 1981; Bowden, 1978; Blackstock, 1976; Belfrage, 1973) undercuts assumptions that dissident minorities can and should always work through orthodox government channels (Martin, 1994; Cohen, 1971).

Australian citizens are increasingly calling for reforms that could be characterised as ‘strong’ democratic ones, including Proportional Representation in the House of Representatives and robust freedom of information legislation (McAllister, 2001).

Reforms to section 57 are necessary to enable joint sittings to displace the power of the Executive to dissolve Parliament. The dissolution power is one that constitutional commentators describe as unduly expansive, given the extent to which the Executive dominates Parliament (Richardson, 2002; Evans (ed), 2001; Lindell, 1989).

However, the other reforms recommended in this Submission are also direly needed to open the Parliament up to perspectives from majority and minority groups (Marsh, 1999). Such debate is more likely to throw up options upon which the Houses can agree, without engaging in long, intractable disputes. This is particularly likely, if the Lower House is a multi-party Proportional Representation one, because such Houses have proven to inspire more citizens to hold their representatives to account.


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Appendices

Appendix 1: About Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA)

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) was incorporated in 1995 and evolved from the National Women’s Network within Disabled People’s International Australia (DPIA), where it had been operating as an un-funded Network for some eight years. WWDA was initially established by a group of women with disabilities who felt that their needs and concerns were not being acknowledged or addressed within the broader disability sector, or the women’s sector in Australia.

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is the peak organisation for women with all types of disabilities in Australia. It is a federating body of individuals and networks in each State and Territory of Australia and is made up of women with disabilities and associated organisations. The national secretariat is located in Tasmania, an island State of Australia. WWDA is run by women with disabilities, for women with disabilities. It is the only organisation of its kind in Australia and one of only a very small number internationally. WWDA is inclusive and does not discriminate against any disability. WWDA seeks to ensure opportunities in all walks of life for all women with disabilities. In this it aims to increase awareness of, and address issues faced by, women with disabilities in the community. WWDA seeks to ensure the advancement of education of society to the status and needs of women with disabilities in order to promote equity, reduce suffering, poverty, discrimination and exploitation of women with disabilities. WWDA is unique, in that it operates as a national disability organisation; a national women’s organisation; and a national human rights organisation.

WWDA addresses disability within a social model, which identifies the barriers and restrictions facing women with disabilities as the focus for reform.

The aim of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is to be a national voice for the needs and rights of women with disabilities and a national force to improve the lives and life chances of women with disabilities.

The objectives of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) are:

  • to actively promote the participation of women with disabilities in all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life;
  • to advocate on issues of concern to women with disabilities in Australia; and
  • to seek to be the national representative organisation for women with disabilities in Australia by: undertaking systemic advocacy; providing policy advice; undertaking research; and providing support, information and education.

More information about Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) can be found on WWDA’s website at: www.wwda.org.au

Appendix 2: The Position Of Women With Disabilities In Australia – A Snapshot

Women with disabilities are, from the government record, one of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Australia. Analysis of data available from a variety of sources, gives us the following information about women with disabilities in Australia.

    • There are 3.6 million people in Australia with a disability, making up 19% of the total population. The proportion of males and females with a disability is similar (around 9.5% each) although it varies across age groups.

 

    • There are 1.8 million women with disabilities in Australia. There are more women with disabilities in the older age groups, most notably those 79 years onwards.

 

    • Of the 1.1 million people with a profound or severe core activity restriction, 616,000 are women with disabilities (56%). Among older people with disabilities, the rates of severe and profound disability are markedly greater for females.

 

    • Over 57% of women with disabilities living in households need assistance to move around or go out, shower or dress, prepare meals, do housework, undertake property maintenance or paperwork, or communicate.

 

    • Women with disabilities are less likely to be in paid work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole. Men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs than women with disabilities. In 1997-98 Commonwealth Government funded open employment services assisted over 31,000 people with disabilities in their efforts to find and maintain jobs on the open labour market. 66.6% of those assisted were men with disabilities. Annual Census of Commonwealth Government funded open employment services show that the percentage of women with disabilities being assisted by these services has continued to decline.

 

    • Women with disabilities’ participation rates in the labour market are lower than men with disabilities’ participation rates across all disability levels and types. Women with disabilities are less likely than men with disabilities to receive vocational rehabilitation or entry to labour market programs. Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services statistics for 1994/5 indicate only 35% of referred clients were female with women more likely to be rehabilitated to independent living (45%) than vocational goals (36%).

 

    • Women with disabilities earn less than their male counterparts. 51% of women with a disability earn less than $200 per week compared to 36% of men with a disability. Only 16% of women with a disability earn over $400 per week, compared to 33% of men with a disability.

 

    • There is a higher incidence of incapacity (10.2%) for unemployed females in Australia compared to unemployed males (7.6%). This applies consistently across all age groups. Unemployed females have a one-third greater incidence of incapacity than unemployed males. The higher incidence of incapacity for unemployed females is more pronounced for those under 50 years age, and especially for 30-39 and under 21 year olds.

 

    • Women with disabilities are less likely than their male counterparts to receive a senior secondary and/or tertiary education. Only 16% of all women with disabilities are likely to have any secondary education compared to 28% of men with disabilities.

 

    • Women with disabilities are substantially over-represented in public housing, comprising over 40% of all persons in Australia aged 15-64 in this form of tenure. Women with disabilities are less likely to own their own houses than their male counterparts.

 

    • Women with disabilities pay the highest level of their gross income on housing, yet are in the lowest income earning bracket. Some women with disabilities pay almost 50 per cent of their gross income on housing and housing related costs. Over 20% of women with disabilities living in public housing are dissatisfied with the service they receive from their State or Territory housing authority.

 

    • Women with disabilities spend more of their income on medical care and health related expenses than men with disabilities.

 

    • Women with disabilities have a consistently higher level of unmet need than their male counterparts across all disability levels and types. Women with disabilities are less likely to receive appropriate services than men with equivalent needs or other women. 60% of recipients of disability support services funded under the Commonwealth/State Disability Agreement are men with disabilities.

 

    • Women with disabilities are less likely than women without disabilities to receive appropriate health services, particularly breast and cervical cancer screening programs, bone density testing, menopause and incontinence management. In Australia, 41% of women with disabilities with core activity restriction aged 70-75 have never had a mammogram. Almost 30% of women with disabilities aged 70-75 with core activity restriction have never had a pap smear. Of those women with disabilities aged 70-75 core activity restriction who have had a pap smear, 39% have not had regular pap smears (every 2 years). These figures are likely to be much higher for women with disabilities with different disability types (eg: intellectual, cognitive, psychiatric, deaf/hearing impaired, blind/visually impaired) across all age groups.

 

    • Girls and women with disabilities are more likely to be unlawfully sterilised than their male counterparts. Between 1992-1997 at least 1045 girls with disabilities in Australia have been unlawfully sterilised. Comparisons with other data sources suggest that the true number is much greater, perhaps by a factor of several times.

 

    • Regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or class, women with disabilities are assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than non-disabled women. Statistics indicate that 90% of women with intellectual disabilities have been sexually abused. 68% of women with an intellectual disability will be subjected to sexual abuse before they reach 18.

 

    • Women with disabilities are more likely to be institutionalised than their male counterparts.

 

    • Women with disabilities are often forced to live in situations in which they are vulnerable to violence. They are more likely to experience violence at work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole.

 

  • Access to telecommunications is a major area of inequity for women with disabilities in Australia. A national survey in 1999 found that 84% of women with disabilities are restricted in their access to telecommunications. 49% of women with disabilities are restricted by issues of affordability; 76% by poor design of telecommunications equipment; 20% by lack of training; 20% by lack of information; and 18% by discrimination.

(Sources: Anderson 1996; Frohmader 1998; WWDA 1998; WWDA 1999, ABS 1999, ABS 1993, AIHW 1998, AIHW 1999, AIHW 2000, Currie 1996, Brady and Grover 1997, Temby 1997, Cooper and Temby 1997, Horsley 1991, Binstead 1997, Rutnam, Martin-Murray and Smith 1999, Warburton et al 1999).