Electoral Reform: Don’t Just Tinker With The Senate, Do The Lot

CALLS BY PROMINENT Liberal Party identity Dr David Kemp to overhaul the voting method used in the Senate to “maintain numbers” in that House do not go far enough: the electoral system used federally is overdue for root and branch reform; far from being the most democratic country in the world, Australia’s moribund electoral laws risk making us a laughing stock.

I have two articles I wish to share with readers today; the first is from The Australian, and details internal discussions that have occurred within the Liberal Party in relation to what I contend was a disgraceful Senate election result at last year’s election, and the prospect of moves to instigate voting reforms in the upper house.

The second some readers will have already seen; it is an extensive (albeit skeletal) discussion and blueprint for reform of federal elections in Australia generally, dealing with the Senate, the House of Representatives, taking into account various constitutional requirements, and giving due consideration to particular circumstances that exist in relation to Tasmania, that appeared in this column on 24 October last year.

I should point out that whilst I wrote a discussion paper for internal consumption by the Liberal Party in late 2012, it was confined solely to the state of Victoria, and did not at that stage include the wider measures I advocated in the article from this column that I have re-linked here today.

This is an issue that at some point must be grasped by an incumbent government and resolved, and the need is now extremely urgent.

The “gaming” of Senate preferences — as outlined in both the articles pasted here — may well be legal. But it can, in no way, be construed as “democratic.”

Two of the biggest changes to the way the Senate is elected were made by Labor governments, and predominantly took the form of large increases in the size of the upper House: by the Chifley government ahead of the 1949 election, and later by the Hawke government prior to the 1984 election.

As readers will see from my October price, there is a valid reason for increasing the size of the Senate: constitutionally, it must be roughly double the size of the House of Representatives, which in turn must be enlarged from time to time to ensure an MP is reasonably able to service the number of electors in his or her district. Indeed, I outlined in that piece an argument for increasing the size of the House of Representatives from 150 to 180 seats, which of course would require the Senate to be enlarged as well.

Yet certainly where the 1984 Hawke government changes to the Senate were concerned, an incidental objective with an eye to 1975 was to reduce the prospect of the Liberal Party ever again gaining a Senate majority; 30 years later, it’s safe to say that objective was largely achieved, with the Coalition enjoying a Senate majority for just three years during those three decades.

Those changes, however, provided the political Left with control of the Senate for the other 27 years — even if, it must be noted, the Senate did not entirely conduct itself in a manner of wholesale obstructionism during the first nine years of the Howard government.

(It is, however, using its numbers to be as irresponsible and obstructionist as possible at present; even going so far to pass any bill that increases spending, and blocking any bill that cuts it, and at a time of budget crisis wholly of the making of the ALP and the Communist Party of Australia Greens. But I digress).

I generally think a government that enjoys a majority in the lower House should be entitled to expect that it can not only govern for three years, but also to implement its legislative program.

I can already hear the voices of the Left yelling “rubber stamp!” to which I would simply observe in response that Senate committees are more than capable of reviewing legislation without arbitrarily blocking and/or destroying it.

And in any case, the Howard government provides a salutary instructional on what will happen to a government controlling both Houses of Parliament, in modern Australia, that rams through legislation without obtaining a mandate to do so: WorkChoices engineered the downfall of one of the best governments Australia has seen, as voters reacted in 2007 against policies that hadn’t rated so much as a mention three years earlier.

Aside from the anger it generated in the electorate, the damage inflicted on Australia by that episode cannot be overstated: this country is crying out for labour market flexibility, and jobs are now either being lost in their thousands, or at grave risk of being lost, in its absence. But the WorkChoices debacle has probably killed any prospect of meaningful or useful labour market reform for the foreseeable future, and Australia will pay a heavy price for that.

My point is that given the issues Kemp raises are again finding their way to the front of the news queue, I can only emphasise the need to make any program of electoral reform as comprehensive as possible, and not merely confine such activities to tinkering around the margins with the Senate.

It can’t even be said that Australia’s electoral laws are a relic from Federation: they are simply the latest incarnation of a hotchpotch of political fixes, made by governments of different political complexions, and usually with the aim of extracting political advantage — if not at least significantly motivated by that noble objective.

I ask readers to consider these matters, and to reacquaint themselves with the arguments I raised in October. What do people think?

Simply stated, I think federal electoral reform is an opportunity to sweep away the outdated system that the Constitution doesn’t even specify, and to replace it with something fair, straightforward, and which requires candidates to actually solicit, earn and win support for their election, rather than relying on ticket preferences, vote-harvesting strategies, and other deliberate and cynical distortions of the electoral process.

It’s bad enough that Greens Senators have spent six years holding this country to ransom despite failing to win majority support in any jurisdiction or electorate in their regrettable history, but for once, I’ll say something relatively neutral about them: their odious presence in Parliament, as a result of sponging off protest votes, is less contemptible than having Senators elected on 1,700 votes out of 3.7 million voters, which is the farcical reality last year’s election produced in at least two states.

The alternative to doing nothing is to encourage even more of this kind of thing, and to do so will make Australia — deservedly — the laughing stock of the democratic world.