Senate Reform, Compulsory Voting, And Sorely Needed Common Sense

TO suggest proposed Senate reforms (which seem set to pass with Greens’ support) are tantamount to an attempt to “rig” the Senate is risible, given they merely go halfway to reversing an unapologetic attempt to rig it 30 years ago; not coincidentally, the old chestnut of the “merits” of compulsory voting has also reared its head. On these, and other causes useful to the Left as pretexts for outrage, common sense and perspective are sorely overdue.

One of the most insidious aspects of the system used to elect the Senate that is the subject of increasingly acrimonious debate is that it’s taken 30 years — 30 years — for its full potential as an implement with which to wreck Coalition governments to become fully apparent; yes, the Howard government won a Senate majority in 2004, but it’s only in the past few electoral cycles that a 76-member Senate, coupled with Group Ticket (or “above the line”) Voting, has been strategised by admittedly clever people to game out the election of irrelevant minor “party” Senators with next to no popular support.

Even many of the candidates who participate in complicated Senate preference deals have been quite open in recent years about the fact that none of them know who will be elected as a result of their machinations until the votes are tallied; and so-called “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery has similarly made no bones about the fact his handiwork is contrived merely to facilitate the ascension of minor candidates whose prospects for victory would otherwise be non-existent.

I have written in the past of the travesty of the Hawke government’s 1984 Senate “reforms” — introduced with a poker face by Labor and legislated, ridiculously, with National Party support — which were callously motivated by consuming hatred and a determination to ensure the events of November 1975 could never again befall a Labor government; wrapped in the fig leaf of the need to increase the size of the House of Representatives (a measure, in isolation, that I agree was necessary, and is again as we speak) a better course of action would have been to hold a referendum, with bipartisan support, to expunge the nexus spelt out in S24 of the Constitution that stipulates the House of Representatives must “as nearly as practicable” be composed of double the number of members as sit in the Senate.

Yes, referendums are notoriously difficult to pass, but this one would have been a slam-dunk: campaigning on a promise to limit the Senate to 64 Senators, bipartisan support would have secured its assent from voters as a measure to permanently cap at least some of the future increases in the number of politicians being sent to Canberra.

With each lower house MP now responsible to almost 120,000 voters — double the number in 1984 — there is a case to enlarge the House once more to, say, 180 seats; increasing the Senate to 88 spots is clearly neither desirable nor warranted, so even now, a move to cut the Senate back to 64 seats to offset some of the increase in the lower house could still secure the change I’m talking about at a referendum if the major parties all backed it.

Yet whether they do or not, for as long as the Senate retains its current composition of 76 members, one primary objective of the 1984 changes will remain: the reduced quotas required to elect a Senator, as six Senators are elected from each state at a half-Senate election rather than five, as had previously been the case; this in itself makes it easier for minor parties and Independents to win election to the upper house.

Adding Group Ticket Voting — with its antediluvian and incandescent preference flows forged behind closed doors and away from public attention — merely sets that bar far lower again than anyone could defend as “democratic,” although some of the beneficiaries with their snouts in the trough thanks to GTV would beg to differ.

I’ve had a read of an article appearing in the Fairfax press this morning that proclaims that should measures proposed by the Turnbull government to abolish GTV be passed, the Coalition would be able to obtain an outright Senate majority at a double dissolution this year, and my response, frankly, is “so what?”

For one thing, there is no existential mandate on the Senate’s part to ensure it is permanently and implacably controlled by parties other than the elected government in the lower House; for another, there is similarly no overriding stipulation that the parties of the Left should be able to jointly muster a majority when Labor holds office, whilst the Coalition is held hostage to an anti-conservative rabble elected on a rigged proportional system whenever Labor is in opposition. But that is the end destination of the 1984 “reforms,” and the 2010 and 2013 elections — with Senate voting gamed out to stock the crossbench with mostly irrelevant occupants — have created exactly such a system.

It isn’t the Coalition’s fault that Labor has lost perhaps 20% of its bedrock support to the Greens over the past 15 years, as its hard Left flank jumped ship to the regimented socialist party and stayed there; similarly, it isn’t the Coalition’s fault that Labor on its own never controlled the Senate between 1951 and 1984 (on a proportional system introduced, no less, by a Labor government in 1948).

By introducing Optional Preferential Voting “below the line” — meaning voters number six boxes to elect six Senators at a half-Senate election, or 12 boxes for 12 Senators at a double dissolution — and abolishing GTV altogether, the filthy situation of people being elected with just a couple of percentage points of the overall vote (or less) will be made virtually impossible.

And that is precisely how it should be.

When I talk to those known to me who are active on the Left of politics and ask them to justify how Ricky Muir could have been elected with 0.51% of the 3.72 million votes cast in Victoria, or how Bob Day (Family First) could win with 3.8% of the vote in South Australia or John Madigan (DLP) in 2010 with 2.3% in Victoria, they can’t: they simply rattle on about how “diversity of voices” is a “good thing,” and accuse me of being “undemocratic” for advocating the removal of the fix that makes these people’s tenure in Canberra possible at all with virtually no popular support.

(As an aside, I think any Senate candidate or ticket polling less than 5% of the primary vote should be disqualified from election, for even at a double dissolution, 5% of 12 Senators in any given state does not equal one Senator. But opposed as I am to proportional elections anyway, that’s a discussion for another time).

Yet under the reforms the Coalition is looking to secure, the Greens are seemingly ready to help pass them in the Senate, much to Labor’s petty, vapid chagrin; the Greens would still retain a healthy presence in the Senate (regrettably) even after these changes are made, as would South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, which is perhaps why both are lining up in support of the changes.

But Labor (which would stand to gain in future, if not perhaps this year) remains flatly opposed, for no better or more discernible reason than the ingrained desire to render Coalition governments dysfunctional, and such a silly stance reflects more on the ALP’s unfitness for office than it does on the proposed changes.

The Fairfax article notes the Greens would see their representation cut from 10 to 8 at a double dissolution under these changes, but in all likelihood that would happen anyway; those Greens’ Senators elected in 2010 — when their party took a record 6 Senate berths at a half-Senate election — won at the very zenith of their party’s all-time support, and even with lower quotas at a full Senate election, a reasonable judgement is that the overall Greens vote is going to go backwards anyway.

And as for the Coalition seizing control of the Senate at a double dissolution now, it should be noted that Palmer United Party Senators elected in Queensland, WA and Tasmania — along with NSW Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, who scored a lucky double strike by both getting away with the registered name of his party and drawing the “donkey vote” column at the far left-hand side of the NSW Senate ballot paper in 2013 — are all sitting in what ordinarily could have been expected to be additional Coalition Senators elected three years ago. That the Palmer rabble has, jointly and severally, voted to stymie the Coalition at almost every turn has largely enabled the Senate obstruction and chaos Labor has been able to marshal and inflict since that time.

The predictable outrage from minor parties — like HEMP, as quoted in The Age — should, frankly, be ignored: and if the ALP doesn’t like these changes, perhaps it would be better served diverting its energy to winning (in tandem with the Greens if necessary) a majority of the upper house vote after preferences, which in 65 years it has achieved only in 1983, 2007 and 2010.

Just as the strong Coalition wins of 2001 and 2004 delivered a Coalition Senate majority, so too did the strong “Left” wins of 2007 and 2010 deliver Labor and the Greens the Senate. It’s not rocket science. But permanently tilting the playing field in the Senate against either side of politics by rigging the system is not the way to go about getting it.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the perennial issue of compulsory voting reared its ugly head on the ABC’s disgraceful #QandA programme last night, and whilst I don’t propose to get into everything that was discussed on that oxymoronic “Adventures in Democracy” show, it’s worth reiterating that I think compulsory voting is a disgrace.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest compulsory voting benefits the Left, forcing as it does those who couldn’t care less or who don’t bother themselves with politics to vote, and the handout mentality of the Left is often the path of least resistance for these people; whether it does or it doesn’t, however, the simple facts are that a) every Australian citizen over the age of 18 is entitled to a vote at elections in this country; and b) they are denied the freedom not to vote if they don’t want to.

I have already dealt with the obvious objection to the second of those statements once this morning: that people simply have to show up and get their names crossed off, and on one level, that’s true.

But it is also an offence under the Electoral Act to encourage people to do that, and fail to vote; and forcing people to stuff spoiled ballot papers in ballot boxes with often obscene messages scrawled across them to avoid a fine is hardly a sophisticated ingredient of a modern democracy.

Left-wing loudmouth Van Badham will, I’m sure, be counting a renewed traffic flow today through an offensive article she authored a few years ago for The Guardian on this issue, for I saw it retweeted multiple times last night on Twitter; I strongly urge all readers to peruse Ms Badham’s rantings — replete with assertions that those concerned with liberty and expanding freedom also occupy themselves with “titty-porn,” pig shooting and “MILF mags (sic)” — for despite the colourful if malodorous language, her arguments are in fact representative of the pro-compulsory voting clique.

I’m not going to bog down exhaustively on this issue, but suffice to say Ms Badham, as usual (and as most recently illustrated only a few weeks ago) completely misses the point.

In the context of any renewed debate over compulsory voting, nobody is suggesting the right to vote should be taken away from anyone: especially the “poor, isolated, minimally educated, sick, low-paid, casualised or vulnerable” groups she nominates as likely to “vanish” if compulsory voting were abolished. They will only vanish if they choose to. Their right to vote will remain intact.

But to listen to the dictatorial, illiberal finger shakers and pedlars of moral outrage from the Left like Badham, you’d think the sky would fall in; I counter that to force people to vote is hardly democratic, and that if they don’t want to vote they should be entirely free to make that choice.

Irrespective of what the obnoxious Badham and her mates think.

One way forward would be to formalise the obligation to simply get your name marked off the electoral roll, and thereafter leave the choice to the voter: compulsory attendance at an election, yes, but the freedom not to vote if you don’t want to take a ballot paper. The state would discharge its obligation to actively provide every Australian citizen with an opportunity to vote. What the citizen does with it is up to them.

Yes, some who waive their right to vote at a particular election might have second thoughts later that day: too bad. After all, once you’ve voted you don’t get a second crack at it, and nor should you if you decline a ballot paper and change your mind an hour later. There goes that objection.

It needn’t be complicated: a presiding officer would mark the names as per current practice, and dispense ballot papers to intending voters; as for those waiving their right to vote, providing the information is depersonalised within rigorous guidelines, the numerical statistics on non-voters would be very useful for socio-demographic research.

It might also serve as a boot in the arse to political parties with nothing of substance or value with which to earn support (and right now, I’m looking in your direction, Bill Shorten).

But at the end of the day — on Senate voting, compulsory voting, or on any number of pet issues advanced by the Left that are defended with illiberal, anti-democratic motives and voluble abuse to render dissent silent — it’s about time some old-fashioned common sense prevailed in dealing with these relatively straightforward questions, rather than endless bickering and petty political posturing, particularly where the iron fist of the Left clad in an iron glove is concerned.

And if common sense is too much to ask for, then perhaps certain sections of the media ought to examine their editorial priorities, and reassess just how much airtime and column space is gifted to “Adventures in Democracy,” or red herrings like Vanessa Badham, and instead concern themselves with outcomes that are in the best interests of this country — not some obsessive, narrow and militantly socialist cabal whose idea of reality consists of the rest of us doing just as they choose.



2 thoughts on “Senate Reform, Compulsory Voting, And Sorely Needed Common Sense

  1. Breen and Askey (sources for the Fairfax article) have no idea about analysing Senate outcomes and it’s a severe indictment on The Age that they allowed such total claptrap to be passed off as expert analysis without running it past any psephologist with a clue. What they are claiming is simply false, and to win an outright majority under the proposed new system the Coalition would have to poll vastly better than 2013, which seems highly unlikely. I’ve dealt with their rubbish at and a more comprehensive demolition by Antony Green can be found here: .

    • Hi Kevin, thanks for your comment — and I don’t disagree with you. Whilst I may in hindsight have glossed over it a little, I was actually dismissing the “40 seats” prediction in the Age from the perspective that even if it happened, why is it such a bad thing? Despite my open political affiliations, I’m tired of left-leaning identities publishing assertions in left-leaning publications that either explicitly or by inference suggest the Coalition winning things is existentially bad, and there was a rich flavour to this effect in the prediction made in the Fairfax article.

      Personally, I can find 35-36 Senators for the Coalition at a double dissolution (an estimate that doesn’t materially change if the Turnbull reforms are enacted) which would be an increase of 2-3 spots on the 2010-13 composition of the chamber. Stopping the election of Senators with next to no primary vote support doesn’t automatically equate to Coalition Senate majorities. And of course, Labor and the Greens can control the Senate if they assemble 50% of the overall support at consecutive elections, and that was the other key point here: it isn’t the Coalition’s fault if they can’t muster the votes, and if 20% of Labor’s historic support permanently elects Greens Senators these days, our lot can hardly be blamed for that either!

      I hope you’re well. Big election year coming up. If a DD is held and returns 40 Coalition Senators, I’ll be looking out for a sunrise in the west the day after, I think!

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