Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Jacob Levy follows up with some comments (and a request for information) on the Australian senate's recent "no confidence motion" in the Australian government over PM Howard's support for the war against Iraq. Jacob's comment is that the idea of a "confidence motion" coming from an upper house generally makes little sense. In parliamentary terms, "confidence" has a very specific meaning, and it is the implied parliamentary supprt that allows an executive government (that has no direct mandate from voters) to continue governing. In Australia and virtually everywhere else, convention (or explicit constitutional authorisation) provides that a government is formed from a majority in the lower house, and not the upper.

However, a "motion of no confidence" sounds threatening, and therefore the senate passes a motion with such a name, although in reality it is a fairly normal censure motion. My thought is that quite frankly many of the senators don't properly understand what a "motion of no confidence" properly signifies themselves, and having seen them voted on in the House of Representatives, they want one themselves. By doing this, they lower their credibility and the credibility of their senate, which is a shame.

Of course, the irony here is that the Australian executive government actually does require the confidence of the senate, but the word "confidence" is not used. The senate does actually have the power to bring a goverrment down, if it really wants to flex its muscles. The consent of the senate is required for all parliamentary bills, including appropriation bills. Therefore, to bring a government down, the senate needs only to refuse to pass these money bills, and to wait for the government to run out of money and/or call an election.

As all Australians know, the senate did in fact bring down a government by refusing to pass money bills in 1975. While the senate clearly does have this power, because of this past use it remains an extremely controversial issue in Australia as to whether the senate should have this power. People are still fairly polarised on party grounds. Because it was a left wing government that was brought down in 1975, people of left-wing politics typically believe that the power should be removed and people of right-wing politics believe that the power is a justifiable check and balance on the government.

The present government is a right wing government. The people in the senate who voted their "motion of no confidence" the other week are typically from the left. While they could conceivably bring down the government by withdrawing their consent for money bills, they are committed to never do this for historical reasons. Whereas they could in theory withdraw their actual parliamentary confidence in the government and bring it down, this is for them unthinkable. Therefore, instead, they pass completely spurious "motions of no confidence" that are not really what they claim to be.

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