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.


Political Idiocy Rightly Abandoned As Funding “Reform” Set To Face Axe

ONE OF the most appallingly stupid political acts of recent times has abruptly ended this morning, with Tony Abbott withdrawing Liberal Party support for an ALP funding “reform” that would have seen the major parties share a $58 million windfall in taxpayer funding after this year’s election.

Irrespective of any argument in favour of this initiative, a “reform” gifting tens of millions of additional dollars to political parties was always going to be unsaleable at a time when the national budget is heavily in deficit, and when politics and politicians are held in extremely low regard by the electorate.

This measure — brought to public notice in the past few days and met with a firestorm of disapproval — was part of a package that included, among other things, a reduction in the disclosure threshold for political donations from $12,100 to $5,000, which would suit the Labor Party’s political interests far more than it would those of the Liberal Party.

But before I sink the boot into the ALP for another truly reprehensible “policy” initiative that betrays that party yet again as a collective snout in the public trough, first things first.

As a member of the Liberal Party, I’m mortified the party even entertained consideration of this package, let alone gave it tacit support.

The whole thing (as I will elaborate) appears to have been designed in an attempt to permanently advance the Labor Party’s financial interests at the direct expense of its opponents at the very instant it stands to be hurled out of office in a landslide.

And whilst the Liberal Party stood to gain additional funds from the proposed laws — if enacted — the fact the Coalition opened negotiations with Labor at all shows a distinct lack of political judgement, even before the issue of the taxpayer money is addressed.

Labor has been trying to rope the Coalition into “bipartisanship” on a range agenda items, from the NDIS to Gonski, desperately hoping the “bipartisanship” provided by Malcolm Turnbull on emissions trading (which was the death blow to his leadership of the Liberals) could be reacquired.

Senior ALP figures probably couldn’t believe their luck when the Liberals agreed to talk.

And in turn, whoever it was in the Liberal Party who advised Tony Abbott to negotiate with Labor and/or agree to support these measures ought to be fired.

From a purely political perspective, whoever it was has done the party no favours and, indeed, opened Abbott to a ridiculous Labor attack over his trustworthiness.

Readers should contemplate the point: the ALP is accusing Tony Abbott of being untrustworthy — because he reneged on an agreement that would have shovelled nearly $60 million to political parties.

Clearly, “Labor Values” include the binding nature of any agreement to shaft the taxpayer.

Abbott, for the record, made it clear that Coalition support for the package was conditional on its acceptance by the Coalition party room, which obviously has not been forthcoming.

But that hasn’t stopped Labor, or the Greens, or the Independents, from lashing out.

“There is a huge gulf between what Mr Abbott says and what Mr Abbott does and that means for the Australian people if Mr Abbott says to them that he won’t cut schools you can’t believe him,” she told reporters in Canberra.

Never mind the small detail that the states run schools.

Treasurer Wayne Swan — a pious specimen of self-importance and a dreadful political communicator at the best of times — claimed that the government’s proposals were essential “reforms” to ensure the “integrity of our political system.”

Never mind the fact they do nothing of the sort; they cash up political parties.

“This will really undermine public confidence because Mr Abbott is saying he wants to be regarded as trustworthy and competent,” Greens leader Christine Milne said, adding “I think the effort today has shown none of those adjectives can be used to describe him.”

Never mind the fact the Greens consistently state they will refuse to accept a Coalition election mandate under any circumstances.

And Independent Tony Windsor joined in, saying “some people criticised Rob Oakeshott and myself for not doing a deal with Tony Abbott (after the 2010 election)…I think many in the Australian public and the Labor Party will see an indication of that logic today.”

Never mind the fact Windsor has been trying to obstruct the conservatives for decades.

So what is this outrage all about?

As it stands, any candidate for political office receiving more than 4% of the primary vote receives $2.47 per vote in public funding of their election campaign; this netted the Coalition $23 million after the 2010 election, and the ALP $21 million.

The proposal that has just been short-circuited by Abbott was to introduce an additional “administrative funding” component of $1 per primary vote; this was to be paid quarterly over three years, but backdated to the imminent June quarter, to enable an injection of funds ahead of the looming election: $890,000 to Labor and $975,000 to the Coalition.

The other main component of the package was the lowering of the donation disclosure threshold, as outlined earlier.

What Abbott has torpedoed is no more and no less than a cash grab by political parties from the taxpaying public.

The Liberal Party deserves criticism for contemplating supporting it at all, and credit for coming to its senses and abandoning it.

Labor, on the other hand, defies contempt.

It is public knowledge that its campaign budgets for this year’s election have been predicated on the party receiving just 29% of the vote, or 9% less than it recorded in 2010.

Such a result would inflict a multi-million dollar hit on the ALP’s campaign finances.

Donations to the Labor Party have all but evaporated, which is unsurprising given the party is on track for a total shellacking. Who wants to donate to what will be an opposition party destined to spend perhaps 10-20 years out of government?

And as if this attempt to fix its campaign finances by daylight theft from the public purse weren’t enough, Labor seeks to advantage itself at the expense of the Liberals by making corporate donations less attractive by subjecting them to publicity at lower dollar values, the idea being that no anonymity is a disincentive for business to donate to political parties.

I have a fundamental philosophical problem with this sort of thing when the ALP sits safely on a guaranteed war chest of union money — compulsorily pilfered out of the dues paid by union members — as a bedrock.

The Liberal Party collects  more in corporate donations than Labor — with no equivalent to the ALP’s union money to underpin it — and almost always has done, so lowering the disclosure threshold for such donations is an attempt by Labor to permanently advantage itself relative to the conservatives.

I have no problem with such a lowering, provided the Labor Party first renounces — and refuses to accept — all claim on money from the union movement in any way, shape, or form.

Then — and only then — will it be in a position to talk about “reform” of political financing with any authority worth acknowledging.

I understand all too well how much political parties cost to run, and how expensive election campaigns are to conduct.

But this “reform” package is nothing more than a cynical attempt by Labor to profiteer in perpetuity from its final few weeks in office, with the fact the Liberals would also get a bit more money as its justification.

Now go back and look at what Gillard, Swan, Milne and Windsor have said about Abbott and, indeed, see what other figures outside the Coalition have had to say.

It doesn’t sound so noble when their real motives are laid bare, does it?

And whilst the Liberal Party stands rightly criticised for even contemplating agreeing to this — and I am literally seething over it, in case anyone doubts my sincerity — at least Abbott backed down.

Better late than never, and better too late than not at all.

The ALP, on the other hand, has provided one more reason in attempting this heist from taxpayers as to why it should face the full wrath of the electorate — and why it simply isn’t fit to govern this country.

Labor and its acolytes are outraged not on principle, but because their attempt to rip taxpayers off has been thwarted.

So much for its claims of leadership, relevance, and the high moral ground.