Personal Parties Another Stain On Undemocratic Senate

WHAT PAUL KEATING colourfully — and accurately — characterised as “unrepresentative swill” is now being abused as a vehicle for personal aggrandisement and empire building by obsequious individuals with little to no public support, as a proliferation of “personal parties” are initiated by deserters from irrelevant minor parties exploiting lax registration provisions. It is merely the latest signpost to the need for an overhaul of the Senate.

No politician will ever say so — for fear of being accused of “talking down” Australia, its economy and/or our system of government — but there is a sickness affecting Australian politics which, unless something is done about it, stands to become a self-defeating affliction.

As jaded voters walk away from major parties that lose sight of their mission to govern for the majority and into the arms of microparties, which — to differentiate themselves, and to attract crucial media attention — obstruct and oppose and embark on crusades against the bigger parties, individuals, and (in Jacqui Lambie’s case) past benefactors: the effect of which is to create more chaos, contributing to the unworkability of Parliament, and making it harder for Australia to be effectively governed.

In turn, this merely fuels the disaffection and jaundiced estimation in which politics is held: and on the cycle goes as a consequence.

Now more than 30 years after the event, the Labor Party must (at least privately) rue its handiwork in 1984; the fiddle it committed upon the Senate that year — enlarging the chamber from 64 to 76 Senators, with the explicit if unspoken objective of preventing the Coalition from ever again controlling it, and thus ensuring a repeat of the events of November 1975 could never occur — is directly responsible for the fractious state in which the Senate finds itself today, and in hindsight was arguably the most anti-democratic injury inflicted upon Australia’s political system in decades — if not since Federation.

That act of political bastardry in 1984 has also proven to be a gift that keeps on giving — and not in a positive or even pleasant way.

In time past the Senate has come in for quite a lot of scrutiny in this column, culminating in an article about six months ago that outlined some ideas for overhauling it; I should make the observation that my gripe against the Senate isn’t that the Coalition doesn’t control it (it probably still wouldn’t, based on the 2010 and 2013 Senate election figures, even on the pre-1984 system) but rather that Labor’s act of bastardry has turned that chamber into little more than a sinecure for mostly irrelevant and sometimes odious individuals, often with virtually no public support, from which absolute mayhem is perpetrated under the guise of “diversity of opinion” and “inclusivity.”

It has taken time for the full consequences of Labor’s act of sabotage to fully become apparent; just as it has taken time for the major parties’ collective share of the primary vote to corrode, it has taken time for unscrupulous and sometimes power-crazed interests to work out how to game Senate elections, “harvest” preferences, distort election results, and achieve the election of people to the upper house who in reasonable circumstances would never be elected and who — on objective criteria — would never be elected on merit.

Today, however, I want to make note of the growing number of personal “parties” that are springing up, for this — just like the 1984 “reforms” to the Senate — is a symptom of the sickness afflicting Australian politics.

The idea that “a party” can qualify as “a party” under Australia’s electoral laws is a regulatory absurdity that should be immediately dispensed with; the provision that a single member of an elected chamber can automatically be accorded party status serves no other purpose than to pander to heretical miscreants who either walk out of an established party, under whose banner they were elected, or as an incentive for an MP elected as an Independent — perhaps fearful of defeat, or merely to create for themselves officially sanctioned self-importance to trade on — to call themselves something pompous in an effort to beef up their public profile for political purposes.

Yes, I’m talking about you, Jacqui Lambie, with your silly “Jacqui Lambie Network.” You too, John Madigan — DLP deserter and now the apparent leader of the “Manufacturing and Farming Party.” There is no prerequisite for these “parties” to substantiate any degree of public support whatsoever, and places them at an unfair and indefensible advantage over other obscure parties who might never win a seat, but which have nonetheless done the groundwork to at least satisfy statutory requirements that they pass a certain threshold of financial party members.

An earlier example, from a comparatively kinder and gentler time, can be found in the case of former Australian Democrats leader Meg Lees, who walked out of that party to form the “Australian Progressive Alliance;” I liked Lees, and despite disagreeing with her views politically readily acknowledge she was a far more substantial figure than virtually all of today’s crossbench Senators (and some dwelling in the major parties, just to be clear). But when the votes were tallied at the Senate election of 2004 it was clear that the only person “allied” to Lees’ crumb of a party, in round terms, was herself.

South Australian Nick Xenophon is on stronger ground, having polled a quarter of the South Australian primary vote in 2013 and almost winning enough votes to get a second Senator elected on his ticket but even this fails to pass the test in my view, for Xenophon faced voters as an Independent, not the leader of a party. When all else is said and done, it’s still a breach of faith with voters.

And whilst I have extreme objections to the fact Ricky Muir (and his half a percentage point of the vote in Victoria) sits in the Senate at all, one must at least acknowledge his Motoring Enthusiast Party was a registered entity before the obscenity of preference harvesting swept him to Canberra with negligible public support.

I’m aware that Lambie and Madigan are facing legal action from Clive Palmer and the DLP respectively, in retribution for them deserting the parties for whom they were elected; that’s another argument for another time, but I believe (and it’s a personal opinion) that the Constitution is on the side of the defectors; whether it is or not, one is prepared to suggest that Palmer’s pursuit of Lambie and fellow PUP defector Glenn Lazarus for some $9 million is ridiculous.

And whether it is or not, it still doesn’t change the fact that there is no defensible or morally justified argument that legitimises Lambie, Madigan, Xenophon, Lees before them, and others who have come and gone (and probably will again) declaring themselves “parties” on the basis of having a single seat in Parliament.

I’m sure we will be talking about this again — and not least on account of the fact that in Lambie’s case at least, the good Senator from the Apple Isle seems unable to keep her mouth shut, especially whenever the inclination to spout forth with verbal diarrhoea hits her.

But I challenge anyone to mount the counter-case that any of these so-called “parties” should be allowed to stand as such for any other reason than the defective regulations that permit them to.

What is a party? Is it a “gang of one,” as I derisively said of Lambie?

Rather than lowering the bar to enable “parties” to spring up like weeds in September, I think the relevant provisions of the Electoral Act should be changed to lift it: if you can’t expend the hard work and shoe leather, and recruit a reasonable number of grassroots supporters to your banner in the very first instance, then you shouldn’t be allowed to call yourself “a party:” and if that means parliamentary “careers” are terminated through the inability to generate publicity, so be it.

Nobody is owed a seat in Parliament simply because they want it. And nobody who already has one is entitled to hang onto it forever.

All this provision amounts to is a crutch for elected representatives to break faith with the people who elected them and — mostly — the parties whose support they relied on to achieve that election in the first place, and whilst the Constitution may or may not allow them to remain in Parliament after doing the dirty on their original supporters, the Electoral Act most certainly shouldn’t aid their endeavours to be re-elected to it.

If we’re going to talk about Senate reform at all, this is one aspect of the overall sickness that affects the chamber that can be cured relatively easily, and it should be.