She opened strange doors that we’d never close again… Is @JacquiLambie cracking under pressure?

There are lots of criticisms of the Senate, most of them entirely valid.  I have recently been arguing more in favour of ‘beefy’ bicameralism, noting the unusual situation in Australia where the Senate is effectively able to force an election.  I think this is a really good thing, although many, many, very eminent people disagree with me.

One of the major arguments against my position is extremely practical: just look at the swill that we get in the Senate.  Do you really want this group of ne’er-do-wells taking down the House of Representatives?

It is a difficult argument to rebut — though I suspect I can — and it is all the more difficult when senators, like Senator Jacqui Lambie, get creative in how they will exercise their vote on legislation.

Senator Lambie has decided to run a ‘poll’ to ask the public their views on the .  She argues that the result of the poll will not be ‘determinative’ but will help her assess public sentiment about the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020.

First, the complete lack of any standard polling techniques here shows that it is very obviously a data harvesting exercise.  Enjoy all the spam that comes with being on her mailing list.

Second, this is a Bill about which there is a tremendous amount of misinformation in the public.  Already the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (repeat offenders in the misinformation game) are encouraging people to support refugees by providing feedback to Senator Lambie’s poll.

By way of quick background, the Bill is designed to create clearer statutory powers for the removal of contraband from immigration detention facilities (and other detention locations).  Due to the complex legal framework at play, Australian Border Force do not have the necessary powers to remove from detainees items that are reasonably believed to be illegal or harmful.  A different process is followed to remove those items, but it’s shaky and awkward.  This Bill fixes a lot of these issues that every reasonable person agrees is an issue.

For my money, I think the Bill needs amendment as, in fixing the above problem, the Bill inadequately constrains the exercise of the power.  It is also not clear that the power should be exercisable in the same way for people who are in detention because they are being deported for failing the character test (s 501) and for those who are in detention because they have made an asylum claim.

Anyway, the reason why Senator Lambie receives more than $200,000 per year as her salary (more than three times the average Australian) is because she is supposed to be able to follow the debate and, despite what misinformation is circulating in the public discourse, form a view on whether or not a Bill should be supported, amended, or opposed.  That’s her job.

But maybe she’s cracking under pressure.  Last year, Senator Lambie was asked similar questions about a complex, and widely misunderstood, piece of legislation: Medevac.  Because the original policy was cooked up by an independent Member of the House of Representatives largely as a stunt, the policy was mostly unworkable and desperately needed amendment.  The Government itself wanted it abolished entirely.  There was probably a middle ground to be negotiated.

Instead, Senator Lambie entered into a ‘secret deal’ with the Government to pass its controversial legislation.  To my knowledge, we still don’t know what this special deal was about.  Regardless of what position you take on Medevac, we should at least know why legislation is being supported, amended, or opposed.  Voters deserve to know.

Is the ‘poll’ simply a way to avoid scrutiny and abdicate responsibility?  Senator Lambie was thoroughly criticised in the media for her approach to the Medevac legislation, and rightly accused of playing politics with the lives of vulnerable asylum seekers.  An absurd poll that is easily gamed by advocates and bad faith actors gives her the pretence of keeping her hands clean.  It is appalling.

This gets me neatly back to my bicameralism argument.  I continue to think that the Senate should be able to force an election.  Although this power is largely non-existent in the rest of the Anglosphere, I think this power is essential to the Senate’s role in maintaining oversight of the Government.  I think this discussion should be separate from the way in which we elect senators.  It is a circus of people who have absolutely no skill, aptitude, or capacity to fulfil the function that we need of them.  Instead of removing powers from the Senate, we need to overhaul our approach to electing it.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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