Bicameralism: an antipodean perspective

As outposts of the British Empire, the various state parliaments of Australia, and New Zealand as a whole, inherited the Westminster system of government. All of them copied the structure of the UK Parliament in having an elected lower house, in which government is formed, and an unelected house of review, largely composed of those from the propertied classes.

In little under two hundred years, these parliaments have undergone a range of reforms, including democratisation of their upper houses. Two jurisdictions, however, took bolder steps: the Australian state of Queensland, and New Zealand, both demolished their upper houses entirely. They remain the only jurisdictions in the antipodes without houses of review.

In this short piece we outline the history of these two jurisdictions and discuss what light they can shed on the merits (or otherwise) of bicameralism, and consider whether parliamentary committees, or alternative voting systems, can sufficiently compensate for the lack of a second parliamentary chamber.

Unicameralism in Queensland

After coming to power in 1915, the Labor government viewed Queensland’s upper house (the ‘Legislative Council’) as inimical to its legislative agenda. In 1917 a bill was introduced to abolish it. Unsurprisingly, Legislative Council members refused to concur with their own political annihilation. Subsequently the government took the issue to a public referendum: but once again, the proposal failed, with roughly 63% of voters rejecting it. Undeterred, the government finally succeeded on its third try, this time by stacking the Legislative Council (an appointed chamber) with 14 loyalists to the government’s cause. The Council voted itself out of existence on November 3, 1921.

In the decades since, Queensland has experienced long periods of what we call elective dictatorship, under governments of various political stripes ...

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