Dr Robin Archer: House of Lords reformers should look to the example of Australia


[First Published on Monday 6th June 2011]

The following post was first published on ConSoc’s previous site. It is recorded here as a window onto issues as they were at the time. For more up to date news on the Constitution and Constitutional reform, make sure to follow the ConSoc blog.

Dr Robin Archer of the LSE has explained the lessons the UK might learn from examining the history of the Australian Senate. The insights he offered, in an interview with The Constitution Society, are of particular interest in light of the government’s new proposals on reform of the House of Lords.

The Coalition Government introduced a Draft Bill this May proposing that the House of Lords move from being entirely appointed to 80% elected, using the Single Transferable Vote (a form of Proportional Representation) to recruit peers from large multi-member constituencies.

In Australia the upper house of the legislature (the Senate) has always been elected, and has been using a system of PR since 1948.

Australia’s Parliament was designed as “A hybrid of the British House of Commons in the lower house, and the American Senate in the upper house”, with the upper house designed to represent the constituent states of Australia. However, “the Senate has never been a state’s house” according to Dr Archer, but is instead dominated by the interests of political parties.

Before 1948 the Senate was elected through either First Past The Post or the Alternative Vote – both of which tended to mirror the results of elections to the lower house, and so return a Senate controlled by the government. The character of the Senate changed with the introduction of Proportional Representation.

The use of Proportional Representation in the new Senate “leads to the potential for party based clashes” because the party which wins a majority in the lower house via FPTP is extremely unlikely to also hold a majority in the Senate. Because smaller political parties often come to control the balance of power in the Senate, they attempt to use their position to gain leverage.

“As a body as a whole it’s become far more assertive” 

The most notable example of Senate assertiveness came in 1975, when the opposition-controlled Senate refused to vote through funding for the Whitlam government. As a result the government could not enact its legislative programme.

The main reason this deadlock occurred was a reliance on Parliamentary conventions to ensure the smooth functioning of the system. The Australian Senate cannot amend lower house finance bills, and convention dictates that it should pass them into law automatically – in 1975 the members of the Senate breached that convention.

Dr Archer explained how a change to the appointment system for the House of Lords might lead to similar difficulties with conventions in the UK.

“Many of the restraints on the powers of the House of Lords are of exactly that sort, they’re conventions which have emerged over time because of its perceived illegitimacy”. Given that the direct election of peers would create a new sense of legitimacy for the Lords, they would be likely to start “asserting those powers”.

This possibility is of particular relevance to the Salisbury Convention, which indicates that the House of Lords should not block legislation included in a government’s election manifesto. If the Lords had its own democratic mandate the legitimacy of this convention could be called into question.

A number Parliamentarians have already expressed skepticism in regard to maintaining the balance of powers between the two houses should the proposals in the Draft Bill on Lords Reform be enacted. Proponents, of the Bill, on the other hand, argue that the Parliament Act is enough to ensure the survival of the status quo. “If you’re in Britain and you’re a reformer, you have to be very very careful not to allow the augmentation of the power of the upper house through the erosion of conventions”, concluded Dr Archer.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.