Senate Reform: Democracy About Choice, Not Snouts In Troughs

THE TRAIN WRECK that is the Senate — at elections and in their aftermath — must indisputably be overhauled; the parliamentary paralysis and dysfunction (and lowest common denominator outcomes) that for at least five years have kneecapped decent governance in Australia must be consigned to the dustbin of history. Yet for deeply partisan advantage, Labor seems set to place expediency above genuinely democratic options.

It is — surprise, surprise — a relatively brief post from me this morning, on the run again as I am, but I should first like to note the significant reaction to yesterday’s article about gay marriage and the deplorable scheme by Bill Shorten to cover himself in the alleged glory of public enthusiasm for the measure to save his festering “leadership;” whilst no comments (surprisingly) were posted, the back-end metrics WordPress provides shows the article has been extensively shared and read around the world, which merely underlines the point that whilst gay marriage may or may not be legislated in Australia, its significance far transcends the petty and I maintain valueless political aspirations of an opportunistic grub like “Bull Shittin’.”

Yet petty political aspirations and worthlessly trivial agendae have again caught my eye over coffee this morning; this time where the lottery-like method for electing Senators is concerned and, importantly, sorely needed reforms to stop vested interests “gaming” the system to get candidates elected with negligible electoral support and/or to entrench the Senate as a permanent frustration (or, indeed, instrument of destruction) to be wielded by the Left whenever a conservative government holds office in the lower House.

Regular readers know we have considered the Senate numerous times in this column over the years, culminating in this article last November which consolidated my thoughts on Senate reform and contemplated some of the practical barriers to implementing an alternative system based on multi-member districts returning Senators on rotation at half-Senate elections.

It transpires, of course, that the changes the Abbott government is instead seeking to legislate — possibly ahead of a snap double dissolution election to “clean out the crossbenches,” to use a current Canberra colloquialism — focuses on the elimination of group ticket voting and the introduction of optional preferential voting as an alternative to forcing voters to number every box if they choose not to follow the recommended party ticket.

I am content enough to at least see this measure trialled; after all, the method used to elect the Senate has been extensively bastardised over the past 65 years (ever since Labor began fiddling with it in 1948 to try to stop it returning conservative majorities) and whilst the government’s proposed solution may or may not work, it is at least worthy of trying if it increases actual democracy and helps mitigate against anti-democratic manoeuvres that spit directly in the face of the spirit and intent of democratic outcomes.

And anything that ignores the vested interests who stand to lose out can only be a good thing: there is no such thing as a right to seats in Parliament — especially if that “right” is predicated solely on the fact you’ve managed to secure them in the first place — and there is no imperative whatsoever, be it moral, legal, ethical or political, to keep the snouts of obscure fringe candidates elected under the present Senate voting system in the trough.

To this end, an opinion piece appearing in today’s issue of The Australian has motivated me to fire off this missive before i get about my business for the day; penned by a favourite of this column — former Costello adviser Niki Savva — which details, unsurprisingly, moves within the ALP to scuttle the very changes it agreed to in-principle when they were considered by an all-party parliamentary committee last year.

Apparently, this cynical exercise in self-interest (and ongoing distortion of the Senate to anti-Coalition effect) is cloaked in the noble-sounding expression of concern for the welfare of Labor’s bum buddies over at the Communist Party Greens, who Labor claims would be rendered “irrelevant” by the changes if they were implemented.

Very simply, it doesn’t take Einstein to recognise that if the government succeeds in having these changes written into law, it is almost certain to test them (and quickly) at a snap election for both Houses of Parliament, holding constitutional triggers for a double dissolution as it does.

And I have opined previously that just like the Australian Democrats before them, and in a smaller Senate pre-1984 that required higher quotas of votes to secure the election of Senators, support for the Greens is likely to remain strong enough to ensure the party retains a continuing presence in the upper House, but this is scarcely the point.

No, Labor’s new-found disinclination to support the reforms lies in a calculation that its best interests are to be served in the preservation of a splintered Senate crossbench denying, in tandem with the Greens, any prospect of Coalition control in the upper House: and thus the maintenance of its ability to try to use the Senate to destroy governments formed by its opponents.

To put it thus is no exaggeration: it is precisely what Shorten-“led” Labor has been trying to do ever since his party was booted from office 18 months ago in an avalanche. For all its talk of respect for the voice of the people, Labor disregards any election that does not see it elected to office.

There is a balance, in any electoral system, between the requirement of candidates and/or parties to secure a reasonable stipend of voter support to gain election to Parliament and the not-unimportant need to ensure representative Parliaments that reflect a range of differing voices and opinions drawn from the wider public.

For too long now and to the cost of good government, the emphasis — under what can only be described as Labor’s 1984 model — has been skewed further and further toward the latter, with a cavalier and contemptuous disregard for the former.

Senator Ricky Muir — elected with his 0.51% of the vote in Victoria — might well be a statistical absurdity, but the fact remains that too many Senators have been elected in recent years with less than 5% of the primary vote, and I don’t think an expectation on my part that anyone looking for a seat in Parliament should have to put together support from 5% of the electorate in order to do so is in any way unreasonable or undemocratic.

(I’d be happier on first past the post, where whoever has the most support wins, but I digress).

Ultimately, removing block ticket preference transfers and empowering voters to allocate preferences as extensively or otherwise as they choose is a step in the right direction.

There is no right of entitlement to preference flows for anyone, and one point that Labor (and other minor party naysayers) seem to have missed is that just as some of their crossbench pals might be disadvantaged, so too might be major party candidates in tight races to secure the final Senate berth in a given state, and for whom preference flows are critical.

But never mind that: it’s the blatherers with no public support who need to be enshrined in the Senate, as far as Labor is concerned. And why? Because they occupy seats that in most cases might otherwise be won by the Liberal Party.

This is no way to approach electoral reform, and it is no basis upon which our Houses of Parliament should operate.

The idea that the current Senate presents a workable entity that should be preserved at any cost is laughable, and of use only to the ALP.

But that’s the point. Caring only for power and not for people, Labor would rather entrench the snouts of people with no support in the trough if it means it can either cobble together Senate control if in government, or use the Senate to sabotage the Coalition when it is not.

Savva’s articles are usually impeccably backgrounded and researched, and so Labor is presented with a conundrum: allow reasonable and quite moderate changes to be made to the Senate, or risk a hefty backlash at the polls if it obstructs them; whatever else might be said of the Abbott government, I believe it has shone a light on the Senate from such an angle as to enrage ordinary people about the way it’s elected.

In any case, people are shrewd enough to recognise the Senate quagmire is the greatest obstacle to the government’s ability to govern; and given Shorten has directed his troops — in lockstep with the very crossbenchers and Greens he now seeks to shield — to cause existential political trouble for the government, scuttling these changes could backfire on the ALP very, very badly indeed.

 

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3 thoughts on “Senate Reform: Democracy About Choice, Not Snouts In Troughs

  1. Look, Senate reform is important, just as paying off Labor’s debt is important, but lets wait until we deal with the really vital question for our nation; should homosexuals be allowed to marry? And yet they are describing Abbott as Australia’s most conservative Prime Minister, ever. The country and indeed the Government, is a joke.

  2. This Gay Marriage debacle is nothing more than a red herring and distraction by the minor parties (and I include Labor in that) to take the public’s mind off the real issues. The media are doing their part in creating a so called ‘moral panic”. As I have said many, many times…..if these people want this to happen so badly, forget about changing what is written into the Constitution…..write your own legislation …perhaps call it “The Same Sex Marriage Act” and put to the Government. The legislation could then be passed (or not) in the appropriate manner and all would be happy. Surely there is a Gay Lawyer or do gooder out there who could do this???? To be honest, I am tired of hearing about it. I love gay people and have many as friends….but I draw the line altering the Marriage Act , and Constitution, to suit them.

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