Barnaby Joyce's proposal to split Senate into smaller units to give Indigenous people a voice

Barnaby Joyce is a former Senator for Queensland. Piture: Glen McCurtayne
Barnaby Joyce is a former Senator for Queensland. Piture: Glen McCurtayne

If New York can get by with two senators then why does Adelaide need 11? The idea that every state gets 12 senators is just an anomaly from the fact that, when designing Australia's senate based on the United States model, our nation did not have enough states so we allocated more senators per state.

Senators in the US represent the demographic diversity so although California has a population of about 40 million and Rhode Island has one million, they both get only two senators. What has happened in Australia is that we stagnated without the creation of new states, so since federation the allocation of senators has remained illogically high.

Far from representing the geographic diversity, they have exacerbated the geographical gerrymander of an incredibly small area of a very large country. In fact, there is now a higher proportional weight of senators in the capital cities than from the House of Representatives members.

The purpose of the Senate in Australia has failed when judged by its original purpose. No senator ever votes aligned to their state's issues, they vote aligned with their party's issues and this was not the purpose of the "states' house".

In the vast state of Western Australia, 11 out of 12 senators come from the relatively tiny geographic area of Perth. In addition to this, 13 out of 16 House of Representatives seats are in or around Perth as well. Where is the franchise for those living outside Perth? There is only one senator outside Perth and unsurprisingly he is an Indigenous Australian, Pat Dobson.

If we want a true Indigenous Voice from the Heart, then instead of 12 senators a state, or rather as it has now become the capital city of the state, we should have a state divided into six regions with two senators per region.

The regions with a vastly higher proportionate Indigenous population would have immense leverage in our nation's upper house. If the new regional senators were not Indigenous then at the very least their political future would be very closely reliant on getting an Indigenous vote.


Of course regional Australia would have a vastly stronger voice in Parliament as well. If we wish to decentralise, to take pressure off the major capital cities, then we need the political pressure to develop regions, to attract the resources so regions can attract and keep new people.

The ACT works very well with two senators, so why does Melbourne need 11. Two senators from the western region of NSW would have to understand the issues of Bourke to get elected and with tight numbers in the Senate you can bet your last dollar that the parliament would become very conversant with issues from the heart of our nation.

Even if there was an extra chamber, a third chamber, what is the point if they are just a mirror of where the representation comes from in the other two.

No referendum is going to succeed calling for more government. People believe that currently with three tiers of government and two houses within two of those tiers, they are over-governed. On the other hand, no referendum is going to succeed if they believe it is merely a motherhood statement. To get better representation we need a reorientation of what we already have.

If Indigenous leaders were to say, "we don't want a new chamber, we want the one we have to work as it was envisaged", it would be very hard to mount an argument against that.

It is noted in the Constitution that Queensland can appoint senators by regions so the constitution was not blind to the fact that greater dispersal of senators across the nation may be required.

Barnaby Joyce is a former Senator for Queensland. Piture: Glen McCurtayne

Barnaby Joyce is a former Senator for Queensland. Piture: Glen McCurtayne

In the US they created pastoral states so that by the approximate same period after the Mayflower as Australia is now after the First Fleet, the US had 30 states. The US enforced the spread of political power. There is a downside in this and that is the enactment of centralised federal programs becomes more difficult when political power is more widely spread. The upside is a greater autonomy and franchise for the vast geographical mass away from the capital.

Australia does not have one person one vote. Tasmania has five lower house seats and 12 senators as well as a state parliament with two houses and local government. Tasmania has the same population as the Gold Coast. The case is similar for South Australia. The argument that regional senators, spread around the state, would be at odds with the purity of Australian democracy does not hold water.

The Australian constitution was not written on tablets of stone handed down from Uluru and its authors never anticipated it would become a static document locked in 1901. The Australian people's suspicions of political motives however means that success at referendums are very difficult. A reasoned argument to amend the Constitution, if not to its original then to a more logical and practical application of its purpose, gives the best chance of change.

  • Barnaby Joyce is former Nationals leader and member for New England.