Chapter 32 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974

Upper Houses


Is he going to have a go at Parliament? I asked a woman recently whose husband is actively involved in Liberal Party politics outside Parliament. 'Only if he wants a divorce', she said.

She summed up a common view of the life of politicians. The view is that a politician is a general dogsbody who has to sacrifice almost all his private and home life for politics: a man who is subject at any time of day or night to phone calls from indignant or distressed constituents ("I will ring my Member' is still an important citizen's weapon); who when Parliament is not sitting until 10.30 or 11 p.m. is out attending local, municipal, Parents and Citizens', Scouts' and Guides', Chambers of Commerce, etc. meetings, functions, balls. He also expects his wife to do the same things, even if when she married him it was the last thing she had in mind. On top of all that, every three years he (and she) has to work like a dog to hold the seat in the elections. It is perhaps a minor detail that in many cases the politician drops in income when he goes into Parliament.

This fairly popular view is exaggerated. Certainly most politicians and their wives love the life. Resignations are few and defeated politicians keep trying to get back. But there is enough truth in it to make clear why so many men who would have so much to contribute to Parliament would not consider for a moment standing for election. It is not only that they would lose income but they temperamentally could not stand the daily life.

In practice, however, parliamentary life tries to cater for such men. Upper Houses in particular are maintained on the principle that a place must be found in public life for the sort of man who has much to contribute, but whose personality does not fit him for the democratic hurly-burly. This appplies (in theory) especially in the NSW Upper House and is one of the main themes of Ken Turner's new book Houses of Review. It is the first serious examination of Australian Upper Houses and a particularly timely one in view of the debates in NSW, South Australia and Britain.

The NSW Legislative Council is not even elected by the democratic public but by an electoral college made up of the existing members of both the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council. It was reconstructed in 1932 on principles derived from the 1917 Bryce Report on the reform of the House of Lords. Viscount Bryce had argued that an Upper House, such as the House of Lords or the Legislative Council, had an important role to play in Parliament by discussing, revising, delaying and, sometimes, initiating Bills. Such Chambers should be made up, he said, of three types of men or women: (a) experts; (b) men of judicial and disinterested temperament; and (c) 'Persons who, while likely to serve efficiently in a second Chamber, may not have the physical vigor needed to bear the increasing strain which candidacy for a seat (in the Lower House) and service in it involve.' Viscount Bryce also recommended that the best way to elect such a Chamber is through election by existing parliamentarians -- although only NSW in the whole wide world seems to have accepted his advice. The point is that many of Bryce's three types are turned off ordinary democratic politics. This means that their influence should be limited, but it doesn't follow that they should be kept out altogether.

The theory is splendid. Legislative Councillors not only do not have to face universal suffrage elections (and in any case have twelve year terms) but they have no constituency work at all. Their minds are left free for the discussion of high policy. In return they were for years unpaid and are now paid about a third of the salary of a Member of the Legislative Assembly and they are expected to leave policy initiatives to the Government based almost solely on the Lower House. While they may delay and sometimes reject Bills they are not supposed to perversely obstruct the decisions of the elected Government.

The question is: how well does it work? As Ken Turner points out, the method of election has always meant that charges of buying votes have been common. As soon as the reconstructed Upper House was established. Parliament became known as Tout's Paradise and in 1933 'Bet you 50 pounds I'm not elected' became a headline. By 1936 the usually quoted figure was 200 pounds. Nowadays it is alleged to be higher. It's fair to say, however, that this is also a criticism of the Members of the Lower House who are said to co-operate with such practices and that despite the risks in this method of election it would still be worth it if it means that many men of the kind mentioned earlier can be brought into public life who would otherwise shun it.

The question then is: does the end result justify the method? Ken Turner tries to answer it with some precision by examining the Council's performance in debates, committee work, revision of Bills. Turner concludes that 'the most effective criticism of the Council is not poor attendance, but the low level of contribution by most of its members.' Too many of these Councillors barely make any contribution to debate and it would be naive to assume that they may have fed their ideas to more fluent members. Similarly, Turner says the Council has not been active in committee work. In fact it had more committees in the days before it was reconstructed in 1932.

Turner thinks that its best defence is based on its record of revising and tidying up legislation sent to it from the popular Chamber. Between 1934 and 1987 the Council inserted over 2300 amendments to Bills and had over 2100 of them accepted by the Legislative Assembly. While many of these would have been small amendments which, if there had not been an Upper House (as in Queensland or New Zealand) the Government would have inserted anyway, this is not true of the most important ones. Further, in the 1960s, morale has improved. 'Attendance is good, more Bills are being amended, more pages of Hansard filled, and greater use of committees is being made' -- such as the recent one on sex crimes.

The general conclusion of Turner's study is that while NSW has a system of electing an Upper House that makes possible the incorporation in public life of a disinterested and inexpensive body of either experts or at least publicly spirited men and women, in practice it has not lived up to its ideal -- although at times it has come close to it.

The practical conclusion is that any other sort of Upper House (leaving aside minor reforms that almost anyone would accept) would be unnecessary. If it is to be elected by universal suffrage, why have two Chambers at all? If it is to be appointed by the Government it will be an instrument, so again why have it at all?

It seems to me that you can make out a good case for abolishing all Upper Houses, but if we are going to have one, the NSW model is a better one than either a universal suffrage Chamber such as Mr Steele Hall proposes in South Australia, or an appointed one such as Mr Harold Wilson proposes for the House of Lords.

At least it gives an opening to those useful mavericks who should be in politics, but won't take on the life of an ordinary politician.

This chapter originally appeared as an article in "The Bulletin", 17 January, 1970

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