THERE IS great merit in the call by Tony Abbott — reported in The Australian today — for a proper, multifaceted overhaul of the Senate to remove the parliamentary gridlock into which Australian government is sliding; Abbott is right to conclude that the upper house is no longer a “house of review,” much less a “States’ House.” But the measures he advocates are yet another Band-Aid approach where radical surgery is in fact warranted.
The problem of Australia’s entrenched, anti-democratic and unrepresentative Senate is one we have periodically contemplated in this column, and something that is the fault of both the ALP and the Coalition parties for creating; it is Labor’s fault for the electoral “fiddles” — in 1948 and, particularly, in 1984 — that enabled the enduring mess in the upper house to even be possible, and it is the Coalition’s fault for lacking the backbone, ideas and the communications skills with which to persuasively argue for and implement a solution to it.
The “reform” of the Senate electoral system enacted by the Turnbull government last year should be dismissed with contempt as ineffectual, infinitesimal, and proof of the Coalition’s current dearth of nous or will where advocacy for significant and meaningful reform is concerned.
I have been reading Paul Kelly’s piece in The Weekend Australian today — a preview of a speech “to be delivered in the next few days” by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott that will call for “resolute action” to break the gridlock in Australian politics that the Senate, rigged, gamed and hijacked as a battering ram, imposes — with more than a little interest; the state of the Senate is an ugly stain on Australian democracy, and anyone who claims my arguments on this subject are born purely of political self-interest need only compare the architecture of the upper house today to what was created by Australia’s founders in 1901. There is almost no resemblance between the two whatsoever.
And the reason this is such an indictment on the national polity is that the two rounds of change that are most responsible for this mess were never endorsed by voters at a referendum at all.
Labor’s 1948 changes — which increased the size of the House of Representatives from 74 to 121 seats, and the Senate from 36 to 60 — were, on one level, entirely justified due to population growth.
Its 1984 changes — expanding the lower house from 125 to 148 seats, and the Senate from 64 to 76 — were similarly justified on the same grounds.
But the introduction of proportional representation to the Senate by Labor in 1948 opened a Pandora’s box that the ALP revisited in 1984 with no better rationale than attempting to permanently destroy the ability of its opponents to control the upper house; it is true that the first past the post system that applied to the Senate prior to the 1949 election — with each state voting “as a single electorate,” as the Constitution puts it — routinely produced lopsided electoral results that gave one side or the other an iron grip on the Senate: and as the non-Labor parties were arguably the natural parties of government until 1983, this more often than not meant the ALP was rendered toothless in the upper house.
The primary driver for the 1984 changes, of course, derived from the events of November 1975 — when the Malcolm Fraser-led opposition used an upper house majority to engineer the dismissal of the Whitlam government — and Labor’s determination to never again permit the Coalition to achieve control of the Senate; reforms involving the introduction of proportional representation have been imposed by Labor on upper houses in every state Parliament that has one over the past few decades as well, with varying degrees of success in stopping the Coalition controlling them.
I have suggested more than once in the past that the House of Representatives — with each MP responsible for some 110,000 electors, as opposed to 60,000-ish in 1984 — needs to be increased in size again, to 180 or even 200 seats; this is hardly a surprise, given Australia’s population has grown from 14 million to 25 million in the same period.
The UK’s 45 million registered voters (or roughly triple the number of voters in Australia), to offer a comparison, are served by 650 members of the House of Commons (or 600 once a pending reduction of the size of the Commons is completed).
But I am insistent that the Senate should not be increased in size; the further its numbers are increased on the current electoral system, the greater the scope for tiny parties to “win” seats on a sliver of a fraction of the primary vote becomes: such is the impact of “preference gaming” that has arisen over the past decade, completing and compounding the effects of Labor’s 1984 changes, and which is the final component of the anti-democratic mess the Senate is today.
In fact, I see no need whatsoever for 76 Senators in Australia at all: the USA, with 320 million people, has 100. Australia is the most overgoverned country in the world, and whilst I am open to abolishing the states in favour of a two-tiered system based on a Commonwealth government devolving spending and service delivery to localised regional authorities, that’s an argument for another time.
But the size of the Senate isn’t, and there is no reason — aside from the stipulation of Section 24 of the Constitution, which dictates the House must be as nearly as practicable twice the size of the Senate — why its numbers cannot be cut to the 64 spots that applied to it prior to 1984.
It is here that I begin to find fault with the Abbott argument.
The former PM (as reported by Kelly) makes no mention of a referendum question to break the nexus S24 imposes in relation to the size of the Houses of Parliament; on a particularly minimalist interpretation of constitutional change, the easiest way to give effect to the solution Abbott seeks is to abolish S24 or modify it significantly, increase the size of the lower house, and cut the number of Senators.
But this would leave in place the proportional system that Abbott rightly fingers as the culprit responsible for decades of political instability and chaos in Italy, where unsteady governments are cobbled together based on inconclusive proportional election results, and which fall on average every 12-18 months on account of their inability to effectively govern.
As readers will see from the past articles I have linked to today’s piece, I have outlined previously an alternative solution: upper house districts, akin to the system that applied in Victoria prior to 2002 when the ALP junked it and replaced it with a token proportional voting system, that return one Senator at half-Senate elections, and two at full Senate elections, based on a preferential voting system.
In some respects, the point here is that a plethora of alternative models exist for overhauling the Senate; I suggest that the “solution” implemented by the Turnbull government last year — an “optional preferential” approach to proportional voting — was just a Band-Aid to avoid tackling, head-on, the much greater problem that the Senate voting system itself needed overhauling rather than tinkering around the edges.
But even if we work with an assumption that proportional voting stays — a prospect that is anathema to anyone who believes democratic government should reflect the will of the majority rather than pandering to minorities — there are still changes that could be made that would give effect to some of what Abbott, others like him, and myself have been agitating for.
Placing a threshold on the percentage of primary votes required to qualify for election to the Senate is the obvious one; those who oppose such a measure (overwhelmingly, people from the political Left) are wont to rhetorically ask why, if a candidate or party gets 10% of the vote, they shouldn’t get 10% of the seats?
In isolation, it’s a fair argument, and one answered by the fact that at a half-Senate election in each state, one-sixth of the six Senate berths up for grabs equates to 16% of the available seats; at a double dissolution, one-twelfth equates to about 8% of the available seats. It would be just as fair to say that 16% (or 8% at a double dissolution) was a reasonable ask in terms of electoral performance to qualify for election to office.
There goes the argument that Ricky Muir, on 0.5% of the primary vote in Victoria in 2013, deserved to be elected; there, too, goes the argument that any or all of the candidates who have polled less than 8% at any election deserve to be elected either (and in the past few decades, this ensnares dozens of independent and minor party candidates, including — regularly in some states — the
Communist Party Greens).
A further justification these people offer up is that a party winning 8% of the national Senate vote should be rewarded with 8% of the Senate spots (which, to the nearest whole number, is 6 Senators). But Senate elections are in fact conducted on a state-by-state basis, and such an argument is thus a fallacy.
I make these points because I have argued in the past that a primary vote threshold of 5% to qualify for election (with the threshold to qualify for public election funding lifted from 4% to 5% to align the two benchmarks) is not only reasonable, but it would actually represent a discount to the number of votes proportionally required to justify election at all, and frankly — with an eye to the myriad of single-issue minorities who think they are entitled to a seat in Parliament in the first place — if 5% of the vote in any given state is too much for them to achieve, then they shouldn’t be elected at all.
Seats in Parliament are not some divine right, legitimised by arcane preference-harvesting deals: they can and should actually require a reasonable level of direct actual public support.
These are considerations, based on Kelly’s reportage of the Abbott position, that appear to have been overlooked.
I agree with Abbott completely when he speaks of the disenchantment of Australians with the political process; a government that can deliver either nothing at all, or merely some lowest-common denominator fix that clears the Senate but in practice pleases nobody, is a government few will be satisfied with — and rightly so.
I am also, as regular readers well know, a proponent of the notion that governments should be allowed to implement their agenda in full, and then subject to the verdict of voters at the ballot box, and the present system in the Senate, now operating at its logical conclusion thanks to increased quotas and preference harvesting arrangements (irrespective of what Turnbull did to it last year), makes such a quaintly democratic objective impossible to give effect to.
The disgusting spectacle between 2013 and 2016 of the Senate going on disgraceful witch hunts to destroy state governments and to openly seek to destroy the government in the lower house, contrived by Labor, the Greens, and Clive Palmer’s mad little outfit, is another foreseeable consequence of the 1984 Senate changes that should never have been permitted to occur.
It was the final proof — if more was required — that the Senate is not a “States’ House,” nor a “house of review,” but a political instrument that could be used to batter governments to death: even governments well beyond Canberra and the direct remit of the Senate itself.
I disagree with the Abbott idea of regular joint sittings of Parliament to clear deadlocked legislation; in practice, we would be having joint sittings all the time, so to speak, as the Senate would dig in even deeper if it is hostile to a government in the lower house on the hope some additional votes could be rounded up from lower house MPs to counter the majority of the government of the day.
The Turnbull government, for example, would be lucky to pass legislation at such a sitting at all, which is why no joint sitting was convened after last year’s double dissolution election: the government’s grip. not just on office but on Parliament itself, is metaphorically held by the fingernails on one hand, and is insecure to say the least.
Including change in any constitutional reform referendum to enable a new Senate to be convened immediately after an election and at the same time as a freshly elected House of Representatives, however, would be something well worth exploring — and Abbott apparently has failed to explore that avenue as well.
But broadly, I think Tony Abbott is on the right track here: the current arrangements for electing the Senate are undemocratic, unrepresentative and unstable, and better befit some third world country experimenting with a fumbling move toward democracy than a first world western country with a tradition of democratic process stretching back more than 100 years.
And in a final nod to accusations of political self-interest, I should note that like any cynical fix — just as Labor’s 1984 changes now work to its, and the Greens,’ seemingly permanent advantage, as they were intended to — they can also bite their proponents on the arse, as occurred in 2004 when the Howard government unexpectedly managed to win a narrow Senate majority.
Any doubt about the bona fides of “democratic” ALP electoral reform should be dispelled with one glance north of the Tweed River, where the optional preferential voting system introduced by the Goss government (as part of Fitzgerald-directed anti-corruption reforms, no less) has been cynically junked by the current Labor state government to a) force Greens voters to allocate preferences, which can confidently be expected to break the ALP’s way by an 80-20 margin, and b) capitalise on emerging splits in the non-Labor vote.
What goes around comes around, which is why — with the basic premise that the Senate is broken, and must be fixed, beyond reasonable dispute — a solution that eliminates all of these anomalies and dysfunctionalities, and produces a democratic and representative upper house, is well past due.
Such an enterprise requires radical surgery, not a Band-Aid. In this sense Abbott’s ideas are a step in the right direction, but he still has some way to go to find the solution.
This effort will be viciously opposed on the Left by a self-interested ALP and others, who bleat about excluding voices from government and a “less diverse” Parliament, and rendered almost useless by a Coalition whose “tactical” and “strategic” prowess has been shown, over the past four years, to be as good as non-existent.
Abbott has his work cut out for him. We wish him well.