Address the rural-urban divide by reforming the Senate

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The Australian Constitution is in need of a revision to better serve the public interest (Image via en.wikipedia.org)

To update our institutions to reflect modern realities, the Senate should be elected by regions, not states, writes Aman Gaur.

MODERN AUSTRALIA is a divide between the cities and the regions. Disparities in health, education and economic opportunities are symptomatic of a country characterised by numerous regions that run at different economic speeds with disparate geographic, ethnic and religious composition.

The declining consensus around democracy and the now-deafening refrain that "politicians aren’t listening" betrays the fact that our politics are simply not solving the problems that are relevant to people’s lives.

Take the Murray-Darling River for instance. Not only does this river system support the livelihoods of countless farmers and communities, it is also the backbone to Australia’s agricultural industry. Despite the River’s overwhelming importance to our nation, water management in the Murray-Darling basin remains a pernicious policy battleground that has proven beyond the policy nous and political wiles of successive parliaments.

Addressing problems such as the Murray-Darling requires, as a first step, recognising that people’s problems are increasingly centred around their regional communities and ensuring effective forums of representation for them. Despite this development, however, there isn’t a single institution on the Australian political landscape that recognises this societal dynamic.

In seeking to update our institutions to reflect modern realities, we should focus on the Senate which is ideally placed to address regional dynamics. The "states’ house" was designed to represent the old cleavages around colonies, but not only has it failed to achieve that purpose, organising the Senate along state districts is at odds with modern regional dynamics for two reasons.

First, the "intra-state problem", where the interests of people living in non-urban areas are insufficiently addressed by their senators. For example, issues affecting people in rural western-NSW in towns such as Dubbo are unlikely to be given the same attention as urban issues in Sydney. Given that populations are concentrated in urban centres across all states, aspiring and elected senators focus on urban issues at the expense of regional problems.

Second, the "inter-state problem"; in the modern economy, regions aren’t constrained by artificial political boundaries but rather linked across borders by dynamic economic and social issues. Coming back to the Murray-Darling, a farmer along the basin in rural NSW has more in common with a fellow farmer suffering from riparian problems downstream on the Murray than either has with their city cousin in suburban Sydney or Melbourne.

The best way to acknowledge these regional dynamics would be to reform the Senate into districts based on communities of complementary socio-economic interest.

Although this "blue sky" reform is unlikely under the current Constitution for various political reasons, it deserves to be considered within the holistic evaluation of how well the Constitution is serving us in the wake of issues such as the dual citizenship crisis. Moreover, the merits of such an institutional arrangement have been recognised in Western Australia where the upper house was reformed in 2005 into regional districts based on geography and functionality.

In a regionally-organised Senate with smaller districts, senators are likely to represent their electors more effectively precisely because those electors will share a greater degree of common social and economic concerns. A region based around the Murray-Darling, recognising the river’s economic importance to people living in various states, would allow those elected representatives to solve these interlinked problems, unburdened by obligations to consider urban issues.

Regional districting is a natural exercise in Australia. Last year’s Queensland State Election demonstrated yet again that the State is composed of several regions but is best under this reform as three districts: South-east, regional and the top-end. Given that cities are composed of heterogeneous socio-economic communities, this reform is equally applicable and beneficial to cities. Melbourne, for example, is best considered as three regions, including the western and northern suburbs, the inner city extending down to St Kilda and the eastern metropolitan suburbs.

The current party-political system is no obstacle for it would only create an environment where those parties had to directly address regional issues. Rather than ambiguous and ill-defined campaigns to elect senators for an abstract "state", the political debate would be enriched by forcing the parties to recognise the specific concerns of each unique region thereby bringing democracy closer to people’s everyday lives.

While this reform won’t appease Keating’s famous lament that the Senate often does not play ball with the government of the day, it aims higher by reforming the upper house in order to better reflect the lived experience of everyday Australians with a hope that, in so doing, we may resolve the seemingly intractable problems plaguing our country in this century.

Aman Gaur is studying the Master of Public Administration at the London School of Economics, focusing on economic policy. He has previously worked as a lawyer and drug policy researcher. You can follow him on Twitter @_amangaur

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