AS SIGNS the Turnbull government will call a double dissolution election grow clearer, a co-ordinated revolt by self-interested crossbench Senators is looming; masquerading as “principle,” the argument of the crossbenchers has less to do with “small parties” than it does with the termination of their ability to be “elected” with next to no electoral support. Left or Right, there is a difference between “small parties” and an undemocratic rort.
The question is a rhetorical one, but it nonetheless goes to the heart of Senate reforms being developed by the Coalition: on what planet can any candidate with 3.8% of the primary vote be expected to win an election, let alone justify their position on the strength of such minuscule support?
Family First Senator Bob Day obviously believes Australia should be such a place, for not only was he elected with exactly that share of the Senate vote in South Australia in 2013, but he appears to be using it as a pretext to join an unedifying tantrum being thrown by the crossbench scourge that has infected the proportionally elected upper house, and which I believe merely underlines the case for its removal by abolishing the rort that makes its existence possible in the first place.
The Fairfax press yesterday published a piece that outlined a co-ordinated threat by virtually support-free crossbench Senators to run candidates in key marginal Coalition seats in the lower house to direct preferences to Labor if reforms to abolish Group Ticket Voting (GTV) and introduce Optional Preferential Voting (OPV) to the Senate are legislated, and aside from initially thinking people ought to grow up — for the tantrum being thrown by the disgruntled Senators is exactly that: a tantrum — the obvious response is that if these people weren’t drawing salaries at taxpayer expense of close to $200,000 per annum, they probably wouldn’t even care.
We spoke about this on Wednesday, noting that had the Hawke government not rigged the Senate in 1984 in the first place — partly for legitimate constitutional reasons connected to the need to increase the size of the lower house, but also expressly to try to fix it so a 1975-style situation could never again befall a Labor government — then Day and others sitting with him would probably never have been able to be “elected” at all.
It doesn’t matter to me that Day is mostly friendly to the government — ex-member of the Liberal Party as he is — or that Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm mostly makes a reasonable contribution: in the case of the latter, the 9.5% of the vote he scored was almost certainly the combined result of a) drawing the donkey vote position at the far left-hand side of the NSW Senate ballot paper, and b) getting away with registering a party name so similar to the Liberal Party (which was ascendant in NSW at the last election); the Liberal Democrats’ NSW vote was almost three times its best result in any other state, and that party polled just 363 votes (0.1%) in Victoria, 0.7% in Queensland, and didn’t even bother with the ACT or the NT.
It’s impossible to look on Leyonhjelm’s 9.5% in NSW, having regard to the lack of votes or even candidates in some states, and claim his election heralded the arrival of libertarianism as a mass movement in its own right. His tally was boosted, to say the least, by factors that had nothing to do with any appeal of his party.
In Day’s case, friendly to the Coalition or not, the idea 3.8% of the vote in a state boasting just 7.6% of Australia’s total electoral enrolment gives him the right to advocate for the retention of what can only be described as an abuse of democracy at the expense of any proper application of democratic principles — even proportional election systems, which I vehemently object to — is unfathomable.
At least Labor is honest enough to say it’s opposing Senate reform because it thinks it would cost it any chance of garnering a Senate majority without relying on Greens support, although as I pointed out on Wednesday Labor’s loss of 20% of its bedrock in recent years to the Greens is nobody’s fault but its own; in any case, Labor is wrong — and unless it finds a way to bolt most of the support that now underpins the Greens as a third force in Parliament back onto its own pile, it will never control the Senate outright: irrespective of whether the Coalition’s proposed changes are passed or not.
According to Fairfax, a ragtag assortment that includes Day, Leyonhjelm, and an alliance of (otherwise unspecified) minor parties has drawn up a hit list comprising 16 marginal Liberal seats across Australia in which even the “right-leaning micro parties” among them will direct preferences to the ALP “in retaliation” if the Coalition’s changes are passed by the Senate.
Leyonhjelm — blissfully oblivious to the fact that running dummy candidates all over the place is also tantamount to an attempt to rig an election — is quoted as saying the group will run “as many candidates as possible” in its quest to deliver the 16 seats to Labor and, presumably based on the numbers, the government’s majority with them.
And this comes against the hard socialists of the Greens and the left-wing (but sane) Independent Nick Xenophon apparently ready to support those changes in the interests of sound governance. It isn’t often that I agree with the Greens (if ever), but on this issue they are absolutely correct.
For good measure, whoever runs the Family First Twitter feed has been interacting with me today after I retweeted the following table of figures showing how often the Senate crossbench has voted with the government between July 2014 and March last year…
…and when I retweeted that table with the caption that “these figures would be more meaningful if they included all of 2015…” Family First sent me a response that said “We agree Yale, and will post the updated stats on our website as soon as they are collated. Don’t expect any surprises.”
That “update” appears below: and despite my request for a source or some kind of reference, none was forthcoming.
On the assumption the second table is meant to be reflective of Senate voting between Senators elected in 2013 taking their places in July 2014 and the present, it delivers no surprises whatsoever (as Family First had promised, perhaps seeking to build my expectations as it was busy “collating” them).
But whilst it’s really gratifying that Day and Leyonhjelm can point to a friendly record toward the government — and whilst I actually think both of them have been reasonable performers as effectively independent voices in the Senate — this is beside the point.
Whichever way you cut it, the duo — and other, unnamed minor party forces — have seen fit to embark on a vindictive lower house preference strategy that whether they like it or not is explicitly contrived to seek the election of a Labor government, and of Bill Shorten as Prime Minister; and should that scenario — a nightmare proposition on current configurations that far transcends any partisan allegiance — then Day, Leyonhjelm and their mates would forever be held directly responsible for inflicting such a disastrous outcome on Australia.
A Shorten Labor government would make Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan seem veritable pillars of competence by comparison: it would be that bad.
Now let’s cut through the bullshit for a moment.
The Coalition’s Senate changes are not about who has shown loyalty to whom.
They are not about who, depending on your political ideas, is “good” or “bad.”
They are not about who is a good bloke, or who (in the case of Jacqui Lambie) is a fruit cake unfit to sit in any Parliament in Australia.
And they are not about the merits or otherwise of the respective platforms of any of the minor parties on the crossbench.
Very simply, the Coalition’s proposed reforms are about the preservation of democracy, not the trashing of it; and they are aimed at resuscitating the principle where the Senate is concerned that even at a proportional election, some reasonable stipend of direct (primary vote) support must first be achieved.
I have said many times in this column that I don’t think a candidate or Senate ticket with less than 5% of the primary vote should be eligible to be elected; the Coalition’s reforms don’t even go as far as to impose such a threshold. Yet if they did, they would be no different to proportional electoral systems in New Zealand, or Germany, or other major democracies who utilise proportional voting in their systems of governance. There would be nothing unreasonable and/or undemocratic about a qualifying threshold of 5% of the vote to enter the Senate. And only the most desperately self-obsessed (or in Labor’s case, desperate to wreck its way into government) would suggest otherwise.
To be honest, I would have no problem — all things being equal — were Day to be readmitted to the Liberal Party and given the winnable third spot on the party’s 2019 South Australian Senate ticket, or fifth or sixth this year if a double dissolution is called; I do in fact like Bob Day and have a lot of time for him, and with considerable overlap between our party’s platform and his own, I think he would make an excellent contribution as a conservative Liberal. This, of course, is scarcely the point.
But as a candidate for Family First?
If he can put together enough of the primary vote under the reformed Senate voting process — if the changes are passed — then I wish him good luck.
And to be sure, there are worse atrocities committed against the electoral system than Bob Day’s election with 3.8% of the vote in South Australia: Ricky Muir, with his 0.51% of the vote in Victoria, merely proves beyond contest the point I am making.
Day and Leyonhjelm might point to reasonably supportive voting records where the government is concerned, and say, “what have we done to deserve this?” whereas Lambie, fellow former Palmer stooge Glenn Lazarus, and even Nick Xenophon (who supports the reforms) might inspect their mostly ALP-inclined voting histories and conclude, incorrectly, that “this is aimed at us.” When considered in this manner, the Coalition is both damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.
The Greens, who predictably vote with the Coalition in the Senate less than anyone, are almost co-sponsors of the changes.
It all comes back to what I have always said: there is no entitlement to a seat in Parliament just because you think you should have one; and rather than persisting with a dumbed-down Senate election system that lowers the bar to scoop up candidates with less and less (and in some cases, virtually no) public support, candidates from minor parties should get out and earn more votes, not simply demand what they think they should have.
The system that allows the current Senate crossbench to survive, thrive and — unless changed — allow others to sully that august chamber in future with negligible support is an undemocratic outrage and an obscenity.
For its occupants to embark on the petulant plan for reprisals Day and Leyonhjelm seem committed to embark upon is not principled, is unlikely to produce constructive outcomes, and invites — with complete justification — the criticism that all they care about is their continued ability to draw a cheque each month from the taxpayer, when (the peculiarities of Leyonhjelm’s own election aside) they have done nothing, including garnering sufficient votes, to merit or warrant the expense.