On Wednesday June 6 the distinguished journalist Paul Kelly had an opinion piece published in The Australian of which he is Editor-at-Large. It was titled “Anarchic Senate is undermining our Democracy” to which the sub-editor added this description: “It looks like disruptive minor players are here to stay in the so-called house of review”.

After reading Kelly’s article, I sent him an e-mail in which I wrote this: “What you are REALLY saying is that the Senate is unrepresentative swill”. I told him about my Senate reform proposal and he responded by inviting me to dinner to discuss it when next I am in Sydney.

The description “unrepresentative swill” must be the most widely used expression ever uttered by Paul Keating who served as Prime Minister from 20 December 1991 to 11 March 1996, a period of four years, two months and 24 days.

His Treasurer was John Dawkins and during question time in the House of Representatives on Wednesday 4 November 1992, questions were being asked about whether Dawkins should appear before the Senate Estimates Committee. Addressing the then Leader of the Opposition, John Hewson, and the then Liberal member for Mayo, Alexander Downer, this is what Keating had to say:

You want a Minister from the House of Representatives chamber to wander over to the unrepresentative chamber to account for himself. You have got to be joking. Whether the Treasurer wished to go there or not, I would forbid him going to the Senate to account to this unrepresentative swill over there.

After some interjections Keating continued:

You are into a political stunt. There will be no House of Representatives Minister appearing before a Senate committee of any kind while ever I am Prime Minister, I can assure you.

All the details are there on page 2549 of Hansard for that day. Journalists immediately went to work on Keating’s language. They discovered that the then Macquarie Dictionary defined “swill” as “liquid or partly liquid food for animals, especially kitchen refuse given to pigs.”

Keating was never asked for more detail to explain himself. However, I have no doubt about what he had in mind, which is not what I have in mind. He was referring to the constitutional arrangements, whereas I am talking about the voting system. His reform would require a referendum to change the Constitution. My reform would need only changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Once a government had the political will, the changes I seek could be implemented in a fortnight.

My conversation with Kelly will take place on Monday 18 June at his Sydney office. In my next article I shall brief readers of this website about our progress. In the meantime, it is my policy to encourage journalists (and commentators generally) to describe the Senate as “unrepresentative swill” whenever they are talking or writing about that body.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)