Same-sex marriage vote shows we need more free debates in Parliament

Last week’s civil debate in the Senate on same-sex marriage gives good people great heart that the Parliament can be better than it has been for most of the last seven years and much of its time since Federation. Rising above partisanship is easier said than done and, on issues on which the major parties have deeply different philosophies, it isn’t even desirable. But on matters where common ground could be found, it is time for a more collegiate approach to restore people’s faith in our democracy.


As the Senate celebrated its civility, with senators from the Coalition, the Labor Party, Greens and minor parties embracing each other, Penny Wong showing wonderful emotion and George Brandis giving a second inspirational speech within a few months, the Australian people gained a glimpse at what could be – and they liked it. Debates were respectful and votes were held, but not along party lines.


Non-partisan debates need not be restricted to so-called matters of conscience such as euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research and abortion drugs. They could occur around issues over which there might be differences of view within political parties and where the governing party’s cabinet does not have a clear position.


Bob Hawke has long advocated debating selected public policy issues with these characteristics, where parliamentarians of all stripes could express their views without being bound to any party position and without fearing recriminations. My proposal takes Bob’s idea further.


Much of the necessary architecture for it is already in place, in the form of joint committees of the two houses, House committees and Senate references committees. A first step would be to inform the debate by asking a relevant parliamentary committee to conduct public hearings, consider submissions and discuss the evidence among its members.


Following an extensive period of public consultation, the committee would prepare recommendations for consideration first by the House of Representatives, assuring the government of the day that it would retain control of the legislative program, and then by the Senate. Those committee recommendations on which bipartisan agreement had been achieved, together with any others on which a majority position had been reached, would be the subject of the parliamentary debate.


This would convert the whole exercise from the esoteric into reality. Instead of making fluffy speeches about the general subject matter, parliamentarians would be obliged to deal with a report’s specific recommendations.


A law would not emerge immediately from this process, since the committee’s report would be the subject of the debate, not an actual bill. Nevertheless, the government of the day would be under pressure from within the parliament and beyond to adopt the recommendations that attracted majority support across the chamber. This, too, would create incentives for the committee to be specific in its recommendations rather than supporting the general ‘vibe of the thing’, to borrow the legal phraseology from The Castle.


While to political hardheads this proposal might seem naive, they should consider its political benefits. At the 2016 federal election, almost one-quarter of voters opted for minor parties, and at the recent Queensland election the proportion was closer to 30 per cent. Part of this minor-party vote reflects disenchantment with the hyper-adversarial, two-party system. Conducting high-profile, non-partisan debates on selected matters of public importance from time to time would help restore confidence in the major parties.


A reasonable counter-argument is that the vast bulk of legislation passes both houses with the support of the major parties anyway, usually following a committee report. These committees often do a good job in recommending amendments to improve the legislation and ensure its passage. Yet the media pays them scant attention, since conflict sells while consensus doesn’t. The general public remains oblivious to these cooperative processes. Important non-partisan debates with uncertain outcomes would be a much more attractive to media outlets.


To demonstrate the feasibility of this proposal, take the case of a 2016 Senate committee report on discrimination against women in respect of retirement incomes. The report made 19 recommendations, of which 17 enjoyed bipartisan support and the Coalition senators expressed some concerns about the remaining two.


The 17 agreed recommendations, or all 19 of them, could be taken into the House of Representations for a free and open debate. A key task for the House would be to develop ways by which the agreed recommendations could be implemented, whether administratively, by regulation or through enabling legislation.


How uplifting would be a lengthy parliamentary debate about practical ways to remove discrimination against women in the workforce and a pledge from government to implement the agreed recommendations? Once again, as was the case in the Senate last week on removing discrimination against gay couples wanting to marry, the Australian parliament would be at its finest.