Various leaders of the government are given to claiming that they have a mandate because they have a majority in the lower house, however slender and diminished that may be.
This argument is used to support the demand that i) the opposition should automatically support all legislation presented in the lower house and that ii) the Senate should automatically pass legislation that has passed through the lower house. The government gets noticeably peeved when it doesn’t get its way on either of these matters.
The concept of the mandate is very difficult one.
This is because it is not always the case that the party that holds the majority in the lower house also holds one in the upper house. It is rare for a government to be reliant on cross bench support in the lower house although it is becoming increasingly frequent for it to be reliant on in the Senate.
However, the declining primary vote of both major parties and the rise of minor parties and independents may mean that the hegemony of the traditional parties may be on the wane and governments may view reliant on minor party and cross bench support in the lower house as well.
The concept of a mandate is made more difficult by the fact that the upper and lower houses are elected using different voting systems ( and also work on different electoral cycles): the lower house has a preferential system and the upper house uses an optional proportional preferential system. These two systems are highly likely to produce different results and hence confirm different mandates in the two houses, particularly after Malcolm Turnbull’s arguably ill-conceived reforms of the Senate voting system.
Hence, claiming a mandate, namely “my way or the highway” is not the way politics is going to work from now on. Minor parties like One Nation and Team Xenophon will claim that their small band of supporters has given them a particular (and possibly peculiar) mandate to represent their views and possibly obstruct the wishes of the elected government in the lower and upper houses.
Both One Nation and Team Xenophon will claim a particular mandate
What this means in a practical sense is that issues like the plebiscite for same-sex marriage will receive a majority vote in the lower house but may quite possibly (and quite probably) not receive a majority vote in the Senate.
Given the vagaries of our electoral system, we can only assume that this represents the various “mandates” bestowed by of the voting population of Australia on our various elected representatives.
Eventually, it will dawn upon this government and upon future governments that unless they hold a clear majority in both the upper and lower houses (a situation which is almost certainly unlikely to occur again), they will never actually hold a “mandate” but will have to negotiate policy with a range of political parties in the Parliament.
This will bring about significant changes to the landscape in Australia. One of the changes will be that political parties will no longer to go into elections making “promises”. What they will be able to do is to talk about policies that they will endeavour to negotiate through Parliament given the nature of that Parliament.
This will put an end to the ridiculous situation where the current Prime Minister is insisting that the only way that same-sex marriage will be legislated is that if his election promise for a plebiscite is passed through a Parliament that is increasingly looking as it support same-sex marriage but not the plebiscite.
So we have a ridiculous situation of Turnbull and Brandis saying, “If you don’t have a plebiscite, you can’t have same-sex marriage.”
They are two separate issues. The arguments about same-sex marriage have been well rehearsed.
But the other argument is about whether a government should insist that it has the right to insist on a process that it took to an election where it won a majority in the lower house but not in the upper house.
Most Australians would probably agree that the situation is not as clear-cut as the government would try to make out.
All the evidence seems to suggest that most Australians want marriage equality and that the best and simplest way of doing that is through a conscience vote in the Parliament. But the government is having none of this and most Australians suspected this is purely delaying tactics on the part of the far right wing of the Coalition.