Every six years, under normal circumstances, half of Australia's 76 senators face an election.
Tasmania has 12 Senators, six of whom complete their term of service on June 30, 2022. They are Senators Abetz, Askew, and Duniam for the Liberal Party; Senators Polley and Urquhart for the Labor Party; and Senator Wish-Wilson for the Australian Greens.
This weekend, at an undisclosed location in Campbell Town, the Liberal Party will select the Senate candidates who will stand again or replace incumbent Senators at the next election. Unless you are a member of the Liberal Party, or close to someone who is, you are unlikely to know this quaint little tradition is happening. More importantly, you will have no input into who the Liberal Party select.
This should concern you because the Senate chamber exists to protect the rights of the states and, therefore, your rights. Few people understand the role of the Senate and even fewer realise the Senate is one of our most important institutions. The Senate is supposed to review legislation and ensure it is compatible with the needs of the states and its citizens. However, over the past 20 years it has lost much of its authority and relevance. Governing Australia has become the domain of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The policies they create usually glide through the House of Representatives before being rubber-stamped by the Senate. Yes, the work of the Australian Senate is exceedingly important. Sadly, most of Tasmania's current cohort of Senators are twiddling their thumbs and don't earn their keep.
Since the House of Representatives is little more than a rubber stamp for the decisions of Cabinet, the Senate has never been more critical to the protection of our democracy.
The Senate needs Senators who are committed to these principles. The Senate does not need a lacklustre group of people who work for political parties and obey orders without contemplating the ramifications of their actions. Tasmania is a small State; but in the Senate chamber we are equal in standing to every other State. Equal in standing but, currently, not equal in influence.
Tasmania is represented by too many senators who consider their loyalty to the Party above their responsibilities to Tasmania and Tasmanians.
It is inevitable that Senators will consider legislation through the lens of the party they represent. However, Senators must also consider the impact of their ruminations on our State and Tasmanians.
Senators must protect Tasmania when the larger states use their numbers in the House of Representatives to bully us into accepting legislation not in the best interests of our island community.
Only an empowered Senate with strong, experienced Senators, is likely to achieve this. Weak-willed, party-faithful Senators, who focus on their popularity rather than their duty, serve only their own interests.
Much is said and written about how the Senate should work in collaboration with the House of Representatives; and how the Senate needs new faces to 'modernise'.
This might be what the Senate is becoming, but it is not why it was created, and it is certainly not its charter. If 'modernise' means the Senate should simply rubber stamp the legislation it receives, then we no longer need the Senate and we no longer have a democracy.
We have a Prime Minister and Cabinet that can mobilise its numbers in the House of Representatives to push through any legislation it wants. In other countries, they have a name for this type of government - a dictatorship. One can look to Russia - a country that purports to have adopted democracy - to see the similarities between its legislative system and Australia's modernised Senate.
The Australian Senate should act as the vanguard of prudence in the legislative process. The Senators should offer balanced argument to reactionary policies from Cabinet and the House of Representatives. To effect this, it is important we send Senators to Canberra who give a voice to the states, and do not simply tow the party line.
As it operates now, the Senate is perceived to do good work, but it is politically too weak to do any serious harm to government legislation. When Cabinet and the House of Representatives introduce legislation to the Senate, they should fear the Senators and the states.
A Senate filled with strong, experienced Senators, with their respective states as their priority, will keep other levels of government honest.
The Senate is also better placed to investigate pressing public issues. Senate committees come much cheaper than so-called independent inquiries with narrow terms of reference, or Royal Commissions whose reports often lead to prompt changes in government policy and legislation.
The Senate should also offer protection to the states and their citizens against violations of liberties, or legislative proposals that threaten the national interest, or is manifestly opposed by a significant proportion of the population.
When political parties use their power of appointment to fill Senate vacancies with party hacks and nodders, it undermines the Senate's legislative and investigative functions of fairness. It replaces impartiality with bias, and expertise with incompetence.
This must change.
The Senate will only remain strong if political parties select Senators who first stand up for the rights of Tasmania, for what is constitutional, and then for what is best for Australia.
The Senate is, under the Constitution, the States' House and should once again become so.
- Mark Wells is a political adviser