PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY: by Senator Brian HarradineNews Weekly
Defending the role of parliament
, July 16, 2005
On June 21, the Senate bade farewell to one of its longest-serving members, Tasmania's Senator Brian Harradine.
First elected to the chamber in 1975, Harradine held the Senate balance of power on a number of occasions and played a pivotal role in major public issues such as native title, the GST and the sale of Telstra. Senate Opposition leader Chris Evans said there were only seven other senators who had served more than 30 years. "That Senator Harradine should have faced and won six elections as an independent makes his achievements even more impressive," he said.
Here is part of the valedictory speech Senator Brian Harradine delivered on June 21, 2005.Senators often reflect on the key elements of their maiden speeches during their valedictory speeches. I intend not to be any different. Three elements of that speech stand out.
The first may come as a surprise to many of you. I made it known in that speech that I in fact never wanted to be a senator. I came to this place after 17 years working in the trade union movement. It was my expulsion from the ALP by the federal executive, under Socialist Left domination, by nine votes to eight in 1975 which led me to this parliamentary arena. The Tasmanian branch always supported me against the federal executive, but when the final vote came I realised there was in fact no alternative but to appeal over the heads of the federal executive to the voters of Tasmania, and I was elected a senator.
The second element should not come as any surprise - it is my consistent defence of the rights and responsibilities of this Senate in pursuit of the proper ends of our parliamentary democracy. The night before my maiden speech, one senator, who many of you probably know but who is not here at the present moment - and who expected me to become a one-term-wonder - lectured new senators about Senate power in these terms:
"What the newly elected senators have to learn is that what one says in this place has very little relevance, very little value, in terms of parliamentary democracy."
In short, as new senators we were being told not to waste our time. In my maiden speech I rejected this. I leave this place in the knowledge that I have defended the Senate in its proper function as a house of review and not as a rubber stamp for the government of the day.
Our grasp on democracy is fragile indeed. It stands or falls not merely upon the values which it embodies and promotes but on the way that power is exercised, and to what end. I have always championed accountability to parliament. Senate estimates committee hearings are a key element in this process. The current trend towards the shielding of important decisions from parliamentary scrutiny by diverting them to unelected agencies or elites makes a mockery of transparency and accountability. It is for these reasons that I have challenged the lack of full accountability to the parliament of numerous publicly-funded bodies.
As an elected representative of the Australian people, I have defended true parliamentary democracy by demanding oversight of decisions, challenging the increasingly dominant smokescreen of commercial-in-confidence, using the mechanisms of the Senate to ensure that the true intentions of parliament are understood and enacted and questioning the growing dominance of the executive over parliament, sometimes using coordinating bodies like the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) which, through lack of accountability to this chamber, pose immediate threats to the democratic process. Furthermore, I have affirmed the Senate's importance as a states' house. I have always understood that our parliament and our nation will be diminished if the smaller states are deprived of the fair go that is enshrined in our Constitution and in the workings of this parliament.
The need to negotiate without abandoning fundamental principles in order to get controversial measures through the Senate has been a strong point of Australia's democracy. For example, it enabled me to help negotiate the Wik agreement through the parliament. This not only provided an equitable outcome for indigenous Australians but also avoided a race-based election. Though the dynamics of this place will change after July 1, I urge the government and all senators to reflect upon the importance of these functions to the health of our democracy.
And so I come to that third and final reflection on my maiden speech. I entered this parliament with one fundamental objective that would guide my approach to issues of public policy. The objective I outlined in this maiden speech was to contribute to the development of an economic and social order in which persons can live with freedom and dignity and pursue both their spiritual development and their material wellbeing in conditions of economic security and equal opportunity.Encroachment
I was determined to defend the uniqueness and dignity of each individual human being. In three decades I have witnessed the encroachment of utilitarianism, crass materialism and particularly, more recently, moral relativism. Each of these has negative implications for true human flourishing.
Against this backdrop, my approach to public policy has at times been summarily dismissed as an attempt to legislate morality. As the great natural law philosophers pointed out, the public policy issues of equality, fairness, justice and the common good are indeed profoundly moral questions. Is it not the case that all legislation is a reflection of a moral position?
I have consistently addressed matters of public policy through a rigorous analysis of the proposal against a framework of social justice principles that are able to be understood and supported by persons of goodwill who are committed to a free, equal, just and life-affirming society.
This is why I fought for economic justice for workers and their families against the slavery of economic rationalism. It is why I have defended human dignity against the objectification of women by the pornography industry and been involved in efforts to stop children being exposed to pornography through the Internet. It is why I have objected to mistreatment of refugees and asylum-seekers. Recent cases in which errors of judgement have been made and people have been wrongly deported have reminded me of the case which moved me to call for a Senate inquiry into the operation of our refugee program. It was the forcible deportation of Zhu Quing Ping, a Chinese woman almost nine months pregnant who was aborted on arrival under China's coercive population control program. We failed her and we must ensure we do not let grave miscarriages of justice like this happen again.What should be done
It is why I have maintained that the true measure of our society and our civilisation is not how rich, powerful or technologically advanced we are. Simply, it is how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us. It underpins my unwavering defence of pro-life, pro-human values against the despondency of abortion and euthanasia. It motivates my criticism of the technological imperative that what can be done should be done.
There is a growing pressure to allow the cloning of human embryos, which is a direct threat to humanity itself. Even now, taxpayers' money is being used to fund destructive experimentation on human embryos. This imperative has reintroduced a eugenic mentality which wrought such sorrow and destruction for a previous and not long-distant generation. It inspires my support for a better deal for families and my defence of marriage between a man and a woman as the fundamental building block of a life-affirming society confidently providing for its future.
For all of us here tonight, the title of our office and its privileges can mask the true importance of who we are as senators. It is the gravity of what we do and who we represent which should humble us immensely ...
To those who are retiring from this Senate - all of that class - I wish you all the best. I have enjoyed working with you. To those who will remain, and to all newcomers, I can only but echo the prayer which we say each morning and with which we start the day in this chamber: may God continue to bless, direct and prosper your deliberations.