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Steve Fielding

Who holds the New Zealand Government to account?

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Who holds the New Zealand Government to account? The voters? The press? Both might be formidable forces during an election but sadly they seem to lose influence over politicians once they are appointed.

Permanent accountability can exist when an upper house of parliament is established. Australia’s Parliament is based on a two-house system. The House of Representatives is controlled by the government. This is where legislation is first introduced and is passed because of the government majority. But in order for the legislation to become law in Australia it needs to pass another test – that of the Senate.

Democratically elected and with full legislative power, the Australian Senate is generally considered to be the most powerful legislative upper chamber in the world after the United States Senate. The Senate mix is different after every election, but more often than not the government of the day does not hold the majority in this house. It therefore relies on the support of minor parties and independents to pass its legislation. This creates an environment where the government is accountable for every policy and piece of legislation it introduces to the Parliament, protecting the interests of true democracy.

When Australia’s Senate is working effectively it functions as a house of review. The Senate scrutinises and refines legislation and policies the government puts forward. Because legislation doesn’t always have easy passage in the Senate, the government often negotiates and consults with minor parties in an effort to win their vote. This renders an incredible amount of influence to minor parties and independent Senators in Australian politics. The Senate system gives smaller players in the political system a bigger voice so power doesn’t rest with the big parties alone. They have the power to uphold or overturn legislation, making their vote crucial.

I have been a Senator for four years and I am a true believer in the Senate system. I consider governments with too much power and too little accountability risky. During my time in the Senate I have used my vote to overturn what I believed to be poor policy from the government. In 2006 my vote defeated the previous government’s proposed harsher asylum seeker laws, which included booting families seeking refugee status offshore for indefinite periods of time. On another big issue, my vote in support of the Howard Government that same year ensured abolishing compulsory student unionism at universities because I believe expensive fees for university extras such as crèche and sporting events should not be forced on every student if they don’t use them.

More recently my vote was used to block a budget legislation to increase luxury car tax because it meant farmers and tourism operators would be slugged for purchasing vehicles they need not for luxury, but to earn a living. The law was eventually passed after I negotiated with the government for an exemption for farmers and tourism operators.

One of the most significant pieces of legislation I have voted on to date is the government’s emissions trading scheme (ETS), introduced last month to reduce Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions. What the ETS really is, is a multi-billion dollar tax on businesses and on Australian working families. This tax will need to be paid by someone and it will be millions of ordinary Australians who will end up footing the bill. It will hurt industries across the entire economy and lead to thousands of hard-working Australians losing their jobs in the middle of a global recession. And all of this could occur because of policy being rushed through parliament before we know what the rest of the world is doing at Copenhagen later this year. I also have concerns about what is actually driving climate change.

You see, until recently I like most people simply accepted without question the notion that climate change was a result of increased carbon dioxide emissions. That was until somebody asked me a question I could not answer. W hen I was told that carbon dioxide emissions have gone up rapidly since 1995 but global temperatures have not increased as predicted, I was left dumbfounded. How could I, as a Federal Senator, vote for legislation that will carry with it such a high price yet not answer such a simple question?

To hear the other side of the argument I spoke to a cross-section of scientists in Australia and even went on a self-funded trip to Washington to investigate further the science and facts behind climate change. I quickly began to understand that the science on this issue was by no means conclusive. I heard views which challenged the Rudd Government’s set of ‘facts’. Views which could not be dismissed as mere conspiracy theories, but which were derived using proper scientific analysis.

I met with the government and asked them three simple questions that I believe went to the heart of the climate change debate. Three questions which I believed needed to be answered if they expected me to vote in support of their legislation. Three questions which remain unanswered to a satisfactory level.

Then Al Gore visited Australia. So, I thought to myself if I couldn’t get answers from the government, surely I could get them from the climate change preacher. Despite a series of phone calls and a lot of coverage in the press, Mr Gore would not meet with me. Here was the great climate change crusader running away over a few simple questions.

I have written to every Senator urging them to look at the material I have sourced from reputable scientists and ask them the key question – what is driving climate change? If they can’t answer that simple question they shouldn’t be voting for an ETS. This is the biggest economic decision in this country’s history, one which is too important to vote along party lines.

The Rudd Government’s climate change bill was defeated by the Senate earlier this month but is expected to be re-introduced later this year. I am happy to fight the lone battle in the Senate until those Senators who are honest with themselves break party lines. And I am grateful that Australia has a Senate which gives me the freedom to do so.