Features Australia

Cheques and balances

The Palmer/Greens/Labor Senate inquiry into the Queensland state government is a disgrace

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

Have you heard the news? The Upper House of the Commonwealth Parliament, our Senate, has decided to launch an inquiry into how one of our states is doing business. Yes, yes, yes I know. We live in a federation and in such federal systems one level of government is supposed to leave the other to do as it thinks best within its sphere of powers.

And yes, I know that the remedy for voters who feel that a state government is performing poorly is to, you know, vote them out. That’s otherwise known as democracy. You assume that the voters in one state know what’s best for them, or at least that they know better than a few commonwealth senators.

But heck, you can’t expect the Greens and the Palmerites to care too much about such trifles as federalism and democracy.

Besides, the Greens say they are able to point to an international convention which they say might be being breached in this particular state that they wish to put under the Canberra microscope. And for the Greens, naturally, international law is far more important than mere trifles such as democracy and a properly run federal system. The fact that international law is seriously – and I mean über, mega, seriously – democratically deficient bothers them not a whit. (If you doubt that, see my latest book Democracy in Decline, where I give you chapter and verse.)

So let’s imagine you’re just off the plane back from the Antarctic. Which state could it be? Well, you could be forgiven for thinking it is South Australia. Economically speaking, this is a terribly performing state. If you’re talking the need for oversight of a mainland state, most sane people would start there.

And then there’s that disgraceful little matter of the South Australian gerrymander. Labor keeps on winning there with a lower percentage of the two-party preferred vote. Sure, this happens in any system once in a blue moon. It’s happened three times in the entire history of the United States when it comes to Presidential elections. It’s happened in the United Kingdom now and again. It’s happened at the Commonwealth level. But not often.

In South Australia it just keeps happening again and again. The current Labor South Australian government is in office solely because of this ongoing gerrymander. So maybe that’s what the Greens are on about. Maybe they’re pointing to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that article on the right to vote, and arguing that the Senate needs to do a little overseeing of the Adelaide crowd?

Well, of course no one would actually think that. The Greens are the biggest group of partisan hacks going. And they’re all hypocrites. Want to increase petrol taxes? The Greens are for that unless you’re Tony Abbott, then they’re against. And the Greens will always – always, no matter what, you should have known this Julia – opt to support Labor over the Coalition. They have former hard left fellow travellers at the top echelons of the party. They will never move to launch a Commonwealth Senate inquiry against a Labor led State.

No, it’s Queensland that they, and Labor, and Clive Palmer, want to look at. For Clive it’s all personal baby. For the Greens it’s about fracking, the shocking idea that people might actually get their hands on a cheap and efficient source of energy. For Labor, well, hmm, gee, gosh, I’m just not sure what’s in this for them. I suppose if you get into the habit of jumping into bed with the Greens and a rabble of independent loonies then it’s not so easy to break the habit.

Sure, that strategy may not have worked out very well for Julia Gillard. Still, if a Shorten led Labor party is going to go to the next election with virtually all of the same policies as Rudd/Gillard went to the last one with, then why not also stick with the Greens and loony independents? Let’s do it. Let’s launch a Senate inquiry of the Campbell Newman Queensland government.

Well, this looks to me to amount to an abuse of the process of the Senate, given that we live in a federal system and in any federal system this sort of wholly general, far-reaching, wide-ranging inquiry by one level of federal government into the policies of another is beyond the Pale. It would cause a riot, if not a war, in Canada. I mean that half-seriously.

But then in Canada people see the benefits of federalism. And the top court there hasn’t spent the last 94 years reflexively siding with the centre on virtually every important case it hears, throwing a few more or less meaningless bones to the states every decade or two. In fact, when the Greens point to international treaties to justify the supposed federal jurisdiction here on environmental concerns, that is code for saying they think they have jurisdiction because of the awful Tasmanian Dam case. But that implausibly reasoned case notwithstanding, even our High Court of Australia (and I know this is a brave call given the court’s past record) will not allow the Senate to summon Mr Newman or any other Queensland member of parliament.

The former clerk of our Commonwealth Senate, the long-serving Harry Evans, told a similar but more limited inquiry back in the 1990’s that it was a parliamentary rule of the Senate that the inquiry powers were not exercised in respect of members of the House of Representatives ‘and as a matter of first principles the same rule extends to members of state… parliaments.’

‘My advice to all Senate committees’, Evans continued, ‘is that they should observe the parliamentary rule and the past practice and not seek to summon members of state parliaments or state officers, or to require them to give evidence or to produce documents.’

Mr Newman will win if he fights this in court, and we will be able to enjoy the unusual spectacle of the Commonwealth Solicitor-General arguing in support of the Queensland Solicitor-General, and against the Senate’s QC (though the Greens may prefer to engage an SC to show off their right-on political correctness). That said, Mr Newman may think there’s political mileage in playing along up to a point, and trying to turn this inquiry against Labor and Mr Palmer.

As far as I know that’s still his call to make, not one that rests with some unrepresentative swill in Canberra.

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