Italian Job: Abbott Partly Right On Senate Reform Call

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 published previously on this issue; in November 2014, in a piece readers can access here, which was in turn a development of an earlier piece from October 2013, which can be viewed here.

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.

 

Senate Terms: Human Headline Constitutionally Skewered

BY allocating six-year terms to the first Senators elected in each state, the new Senate will replicate the act of all others convened after a double dissolution since Federation; Derryn Hinch, aggrieved by a three-year term but worthier of six than most, offered a surprisingly undemocratic alternative his colleagues and precedent will sink. A touted lawsuit is constitutionally doomed. He should eschew pointless brawls in favour of more salient issues.

Short of criticising Malcolm Turnbull and the tentative early missteps of his re-elected government — over Kevin Rudd, the Don Dale fiasco, the continued triumphalism of moderate factional hacks in the Liberal Party in rubbing the majority conservatives’ noses in the dirt, or over his diminished authority and continued exhibition of poor or non-existent political judgement — there has been little to discuss over the past week, and as I am waiting to see how Turnbull fares when Parliament reconvenes in ten days’ time, I am reluctant to tear into his government. For now.

After the appalling election campaign and the events that led to it, readers can be well assured that whilst this column’s guns have not fired at the Prime Minister in recent weeks, they are trained in that direction and will do precisely that if my view is that Turnbull and his smug moderate cohorts are pushing the Coalition nearer to the electoral abyss: not that there’s very far to push these days, given the government was re-elected with the barest possible majority in the lower house and a diabolical position in the Senate.

But the news this week that the Coalition and Labor have “done a deal” to put a majority of the Senate crossbench on three-year terms is unexceptional, albeit one of the first items of real business for the new Senate to resolve, and even in the current era of rank negativity, pointless populism and incendiary tactics to achieve outcomes counter to the national interest but conducive to one political agenda or another, it is hard to have any sympathy for any of the Senators who have got it into their heads that they should have been installed for six years if they ended up being relegated to three.

Readers can access coverage of this issue, depending on preference, by the Fairfax and Murdoch stables; the allocation of six-year terms to 16 of 30 Coalition Senators and 13 of 26 from Labor is hardly excessive, and I would make the point that if this were indeed a conspiratorial stitch-up claimed by the likes of idiotic Communist Greens leader Richard Di Natale, then most or all of the seven of the 18 crossbench or Greens Senators in line for six-year terms would be contemplating just three years in the red chamber this weekend.

So let’s dispense with the bullshit: there hasn’t been a hatchet job done on the crossbenchers, even if obsessive self-interest has deluded some of them that there has.

The “order of election” method for allocating six-year and three-year terms to Senators after a double dissolution is the exact method used after double dissolutions in 1914, 1951, 1974, 1975, 1983 and 1987; it is impossible to argue that the utilisation of this method now is inconsistent with historical practice.

As part of its 1984 electoral reforms — which, at root, are responsible for the mess the Senate has descended into over the past ten years — the ALP enshrined in the Electoral Act a “countback method” (the so-called Section 282 recount) as an alternative mechanism for allocating terms based on the votes obtained by the 12 winning candidates in each state to the exclusion of preferences obtained from eliminated candidates; significantly, the Hawke government did not use this mechanism after the 1987 election, and as the article I’ve linked from The Age notes, the electoral commissioner advised the Clerk of the Parliament after the election that the Senate was in no way obliged to use Section 282 of the Electoral Act in determining the tenure of Senators.

And the reason is brutally simple, and brutal in its finality: the Constitution.

I have provided links to the Constitution in the past, and do so again today here; in the context of how three-year and six-year terms are carved up, the matter is entirely dealt with by S13, and that section itself makes no prescription whatsoever for the method to be used, merely noting that the Senate itself is responsible for dividing Senators into short-term and long-term Senators following a double dissolution.

As there is no recourse where the Constitution is concerned — clearly, any finding by a Court against the provisions of the Constitution would, by its nature, be unlawful — it is safe to assert that the method for this practice is as the sole discretion of the Senate; the fact the same method used on six previous occasions is again being used now merely adds the strengthening hand of precedent to the allocations announced yesterday, and it would be a foolish and wantonly expensive misadventure indeed for any aggrieved party to run off to the High Court seeking an intervention against the Constitution in their favour. It isn’t going to happen.

Family First Senator Bob Day found this out the hard way earlier this year, when he launched a ridiculous High Court challenge to changes to the way the Senate is elected, believing his interests and those of minor parties generally were disadvantaged; whether they were or not is irrelevant (and with a record 20 Senators set to take their places on the crossbench on 23 August, it’s problematic to argue the point), for S9 is unequivocal that the Commonwealth Parliament may prescribe the method of electing Senators provided such a method is uniform for all of the states: which, earlier this year, it did.

Assessed against the backdrop of constitutional provisions that confer unequivocal authority on Parliament to determine these matters at its absolute discretion, the actions of Victorian Senator Derryn Hinch are curious, to say the least.

Surprisingly, for a decent man ferociously (and rightly) obsessed with standards in public life, Hinch’s proposed alternative — that all represented parties be allocated at least one six-year Senator — not only flies in the face of both constitutional provision and parliamentary precedent, but also exudes a distinctly anti-democratic odour.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the Hinch proposal would have seen the Australian Motorist Enthusiasts Party Senator Ricky Muir, with his 0.5% of the primary vote, given six years in the Senate had that result and outcome been replicated last month; the Hinch proposal gives every appearance of being an unashamed attempted sop to minor parties at the expense of the traditional major parties, and those who rail against the major parties too often conveniently lose sight of the fact that they generally do win an awful lot more votes than their tiny counterparts.

Long-term readers know I have a lot of time for Hinch — and have had for decades — and I welcome his presence in the Senate; some of his positions (such as his support for gay marriage) I do not support, but others (such as disclosure and tougher sentencing for sex offenders) I wholeheartedly endorse. I am not having a go at Derryn today. But it does seem that in trying to push a proposal that would in fact benefit him, he has highlighted problems not just with Senate elections more broadly, but with the conflict that erupts at the intersection of standard parliamentary practice and the “modern” political practice of doing business with a sledgehammer and voluble amounts of intimidatory hot air designed to force opposition into submission.

But as I said earlier in today’s piece, were this simply a stitch-up, there would be worse things to bleat about than Derryn only being given a three-year term.

The good news is that odious actual Communist and national disgrace Lee Rhiannon has been added to the list of those who must face election before June 2019: an opportunity to get rid of an appalling blight on the national polity once and for all. Diversity be damned; this is someone whose past activities verge on treason, and who should be permanently disqualified from holding elective office in this country altogether.

Also to be welcomed is the fact Rhiannon’s rival as the Greens’ most contemptible parliamentarian — the obsequious Sarah Hanson-Young — will also be forced to provide voters with a further opportunity to get rid of her the next time a federal election is held.

And all three of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation buddies will be forced back to the polls at the same time; the prospect of any or all returning to Canberra after the next election must be regarded as low given the almost doubled quotas they will require in order to do so.

The bad news is that good people — like Hinch, Day, and Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm — will likewise be marched off to the polls again; this is not the result of any personal targeting but the even application of a system that has been used repeatedly at double dissolutions. In this case, it has produced outcomes that are not desirable.

Similarly, the news that Pauline Hanson and Jacqui Lambie will spend six-year terms in the Senate is a cause for rue; Hanson, by virtue of the vote recorded in Queensland, is entitled to such a term whether you like it or not, but Lambie — in my view the stupidest person ever elected to an Australian Parliament, and much, much worse than Hanson in any case — is a presence whose voice adds precisely nothing of value to the national debate in any way, shape, or form.

But “the system” is just that — the system which, by consent under law, we agree to abide by — and too often in recent years, the refusal of some (mostly, but not exclusively, on the Left) to accept the outcomes it delivers is a disturbing symptom of anti-democratic momentum that runs counter to the national interest, and it is for this reason I was dismayed by Hinch’s “give all parties six years” approach when such a position lacks merit, credibility, and legal integrity.

My criticism of Hinch starts and ends there, but my ongoing critique of others in Canberra — whom we have repeatedly discussed this year in their attempts to subvert process in one way or another — does not.

If I was honest, I would have to say I’m just about fed up with the Senate: the niceties of allocating three and six-year terms aside, it’s not democratic, it’s not representative, and it most certainly isn’t functional in the sense a reasonable person would understand the term to imply — just like proportionally elected Parliaments in Europe, which are usually gridlocked and are a direct cause of the economic and social malaise that now afflicts the EU and its neighbours on the continent.

Perhaps all of this lends weight to the possibility of constitutional change to overhaul Parliament itself, along the lines we have discussed in this column across the journey: breaking the nexus between the Houses that dictate their relative size, along with a recasting of the Senate into upper house districts that return a single member at a half-Senate election and two members at a double dissolution.

But any such change would require the courage and perspicacity of MPs and their organisational structures to formulate arguments for such change, and the skill to sell those arguments and carry public opinion: attributes I don’t think anyone believes exist right now, to any great degree, among the group currently charged with governance in Canberra.

To be clear, the changes made to Senate election procedures earlier this year were entirely within the Parliament’s jurisdiction to make, but were in fact little more than a Band-Aid on a suppurating sore: they were no more “real reform” than the idea a superannuation tax rise and a business tax cut was a “clear economic program.”

In this context, whatever merit or otherwise might rest in Hinch’s musings on the carve-up of terms for Senators, the point is moot: and even if his concept were valid (and I don’t believe it is), such a change would be just as much a rearrangement rather than an overhaul as those electoral reforms are already proving.

Hinch was elected on credible (and in some cases, urgently indicated) policies: he should shun the allure of picking a pointless legal fight guaranteed to end badly, and focus instead on those policies. The Constitution has him snookered. The High Court would simply pot the black on him. It would be a silly waste of time, money, and public goodwill.

But this wouldn’t stop him attempting to explore, as a Senator, substantial ideas for genuine reform of the Senate, although the record level of self-interest and obsession with keeping their snouts in the trough means that whatever else is said of Australia’s MPs, the interest factor will be virtually zero.

Best to get on with the job at hand. Most of the people in Canberra, despite their protestations to the contrary, are really only concerned with staying there. If Hinch is to be different, there’s a big opportunity to prove it by standing out from the pack.

The clock is ticking.

 

Turbulent Times: Turnbull Closes In On A Victory To Regret

WITH ONGOING counting ameliorating swings against the Coalition in a handful of critical seats, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is nearing an election win, probably with 75 of 150 seats in the House of Representatives; with an eye to the strategic prospects of the Liberal Party and the long-term welfare of Australia, this is a “victory” likely to be extracted at astronomical cost, and one the Coalition parties will regret for many years to come.

The old adage — that “winners are grinners, and losers can do what they like” — is, in this instance, a piece of histrionic frippery that applies to nobody where the 2016 election is concerned; just as this column reluctantly provided a tepid, peg-on-nose endorsement of the Coalition on Saturday on the sole basis it was not Bill Shorten and Labor, there will be no congratulations emanating from this quarter when the results are finally declared, and the leeches and parasites who will now infest the Senate crossbench should give advance consideration to the fact that the behaviour now expected of them will compound a likely national calamity.

First things first: whilst the election result remains undetermined in the most literal sense, a better-than-expected strengthening of the Coalition’s position as counting continues now sees it likely to eke out at least half of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives; yet even if its best-possible case scenario of 77 seats (and perhaps about 50.2% of the national two-party vote) eventuates, it will do nothing to overturn the judgement that the 2016 election has been a debacle that was entirely avoidable, and for which Australia is likely to pay heavily.

I am loath to engage in seat-by-seat commentary, shifting as the electoral sands continue to be, but it now appears the Coalition has taken a seat from Labor (Chisholm in Melbourne) and should hold Forde, on Brisbane’s southern outskirts; five other previously Coalition-held seats remain in the Australian Electoral Commission’s “too close to call” bracket, and whilst the Liberals trail in all five this morning, it does seem likely they will hold at least one of these to make it to the 75-seat halfway mark in the lower house.

But Labor will command a majority of the seats in all states except WA and Queensland, including a total Coalition wipeout in Tasmania for the fifth time in the seven elections since 1998, and all four of the seats in the territories; this is no endorsement of Malcolm Turnbull’s government, although it should equally be noted that (despite the arrogant post-election hubris of Bill Shorten) it is no endorsement of the ALP either, and on one level, both sides — through the humiliation delivered to Turnbull and the failure to triumph by Shorten — have been rewarded with no less than they deserve.

To be clear, there is no winner from the 2016 federal election.

Rather than the near-death experience Turnbull appears to have suffered in the lower house, the greatest disaster of this election — and the greatest disservice it will prove to have inflicted upon the country — is the outcome in the Senate, which now appears likely to be populated by up to 13 crossbenchers in addition to no fewer than nine Communists Greens.

The new Senate (which will be constituted immediately the results are declared due to the backdating of terms after a double dissolution) is likely to prove a fatal thorn in the side of the elected government in the lower house; the behaviour of Labor and the Greens in the last Parliament provide a pointer to their likely behaviour now, and those entities — in cahoots with at least two Senators from the imbecilic Jacqui Lambie Network — will be able to block 100% of Coalition legislation through their control of at least 38 of the 76 spots in the upper house.

Opposition “leader” Bill Shorten, set to be unanimously reconfirmed in his position today for a further three years by the ALP caucus, is certain to continue the blanket suffocation tactics he directed Labor to employ over the past three years; for little Billy Bullshit, notions of responsibility and allowing the Coalition to govern are likely to be given short shrift as the malodorous stench of a terminally wounded government emboldens him to focus on the eventual kill, and with an eye to the haemorrhagic state of the federal budget, this means a continuation of the Shorten tactic of waving spending increases through the Senate (if any are even presented) whilst knocking any measures to cut outlays on the head.

The effects of this tactic were thrown into stark focus yesterday, with international financial ratings agency Standard and Poors downgrading Australia’s investment outlook from “stable” to “negative,” and whilst the country retains — for now — its prized AAA credit rating, it seems inevitable that this will soon enough be lost: make no mistake, the ALP is desperate for this downgrade to occur on the Coalition’s watch, and if it does, Shorten and his goons will proclaim it to be the final and irrefutable evidence of the inability of the Coalition to manage the federal budget, and claim final absolution for Labor’s fiscal recklessness during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period.

The reality, of course, will be rather different.

But it is at this point the Coalition is going to begin to pay — really pay — for its utter ineptitude where the ability to fashion and sell a message is concerned; as far back as the early weeks of the Abbott government, Labor was already trying to publicly wash its hands of any responsibility for the mess it left the country’s books in, and the response this effort elicited from the Coalition was misdirected.

Rather than mounting a savage demolition of the ALP from the government benches — as John Howard and Peter Costello did to devastating effect in 1996 — the Coalition instead devoted its energies to justifying targeting its own electoral base (and swinging voters who backed the Coalition in 2013) in a hopelessly ill-focused 2014 budget instead of taking careful aim at the tens of billions of dollars of recurrent social spending legislated by Gillard.

Then-Treasurer Joe Hockey went to the trouble of conducting a Commission of Audit — as Costello did in 1996 — but unlike his predecessor Hockey sat on the final report until the week before his 2014 budget, and only then tried to use its findings against the ALP in what gave every public appearance of being an afterthought.

And despite the wimpish option of slugging its own base with tax hikes and targeting its own constituency of families to wear the bulk of what cuts is actually deigned to attempt, the Abbott government — right from the start — failed to accrue double dissolution triggers based on economic management that might have provided the Coalition with real ammunition to fight the election that is now almost concluded.

Turnbull will have no choice but to abandon the actual pretext he went to the people on — union governance — for after a truly dreadful election campaign, there is simply no point in convening the joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament to which the government, after a double dissolution, is entitled; even if it manages a bare majority in the lower house with 76 seats, the Coalition will remain about ten votes short of an absolute Parliamentary majority, and looking at the Senate it is highly plausible that none of the crossbench Senators will vote for its measures to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

As veteran journalist Paul Kelly observed on Sky News last night, Turnbull is obliged, at the minimum, to attempt to pass the union governance measures through the House and the Senate, if for no better reason to be seen to be paying lipservice to the agenda he took to voters. But he is destined to fail in the upper house, and the very notion of convening a joint sitting in an attempt to prevail is now laughable.

In fact, the only group in Australia that can claim to have achieved any kind of victory from the election — unforgivably — is the union movement.

Nobody should believe the protestations from Trades Hall that unions’ overarching objective is to play the role of “safety enforcer” in Australian workplaces; their behaviour over the past three years marks them out as just another political outfit, and one committed to anti-democratic and at times violently brutal enforcement of its objectives.

Unions have been complicit with the ALP in recent years in attempts to rig state elections in Victoria and in Queensland, with rent-a-crowd ring-ins dispatched to marginal seats to masquerade as essential services personnel, and to spread the standard itinerary of Labor lies about fictitiously apocalyptic Coalition “plans” to decimate schools, hospitals, and  emergency services.

In both states, unions (and particularly the rancid filth at the bottom of the virulent Trades Hall bucket, the CFMEU) have sought to extract their pound of flesh from the resultant Labor governments they helped get elected; the present attempt in Victoria by the hard-Left United Firefighters’ Union to take over the Country Fire Authority, with the sanction of the Andrews government and in defiance of the vast majority of volunteer CFA firefighters it would shaft, is merely a curtain-raiser to likely similar assaults against a range of targets from the State Emergency Service to surf lifesavers as unions use Labor governments to violate volunteer organisations and to entrench themselves where they are not wanted.

But the malevolent assumption by unions of a role to actively rig elections has been taken a step further in the election campaign that has just been held: union money has flowed to (and been accepted by) almost every non-Coalition candidate, in both Houses of Parliament, with any prospect of defeating the Coalition anywhere in Australia; it is one thing for the unions to campaign against a conservative government (the nature of their outrageous “campaign” tactics notwithstanding), but it is another matter altogether to rig an election by trying to make a conservative victory impossible at the first place before a single vote is cast.

One of the reasons we know the Senate crossbench will do whatever Labor and the unions want it to do is because of the sheer volume of union money that has sluiced through supposedly “independent” campaign funds; any idiot who took union money to bankroll themselves, whilst simultaneously clinging to the delusion they would be able to vote however they liked if elected, is in for a very, very nasty surprise.

Just as the unions were prepared to dish out the largesse to skew the electoral contest and engineer a Shorten victory, they will — as they have shown in Victoria and Queensland — now collect on their investments, and any crossbencher who regards themselves as free to vote with the government at will is going to be very quickly set straight about the realities of the agenda they surrendered to by taking union donations in the first place.

Pointedly, Bob Katter Jr — who yesterday announced “without any enthusiasm” that he had decided to offer the Coalition support on matters of confidence and supply — said that at the first sign of “union bashing,” all bets would be off: exactly what might constitute “union bashing” remains unclear, but it’s a fair bet that this spectre will be evoked if the Turnbull government tries to legislate its union governance measures, irrespective of whether such an enterprise is doomed or not.

But Katter — who also took union money — has also made it known that had the Parliament been hung (which it now seems certain not to be) and had Anthony Albanese been leading Labor instead of the noxious Bill Shorten, he would have backed the ALP to form a government: his “support” for Turnbull can only be understood in this context, and his threat about “union bashing” likely to prove merely a foretaste of the unions’ return on their campaign investments.

Unions are just about the most tainted and compromised organisations in Australia; they are a ship you do not board unless the political agenda of the Left is something you are prepared to unquestioningly back.

Labor, and the unions, have gone to inordinate lengths in recent years to make money from lobbyists, property developers and tobacco firms a no-no, and lethal to the political touch: and so too should be money from the union movement, for the genesis of such funds lies not in the pursuit of industrial safety but rather political brutality, and its objectives are anything but democratic.

Just as Labor and the Greens bang on about “campaign finance reform” — which is code for chopping the Coalition off from funds from the business sector — union money, which both Labor and Greens take, is an absolute no-go where this “principled” stand on donations is concerned.

To be frank, we are very close to the point Australia would be better off without the unions altogether in their current form.

But they will now wield greater influence in this country than they have ever done, with so many little elves and sprites on the loose in both Houses of Parliament to do their bidding; it is a reality that adds a very ugly undercurrent to what promises to be a very ugly three years, in which little is achieved but which lays the groundwork for even more damage to the national interest in coming years.

Whatever the eventual seat tally, the government enters its second term in office with dozens of marginal seats; with no electoral buffer remaining, the Coalition is now exposed to an absolute belting at the next election if things do not go well for it — which is why I have consistently opined that it might have been better for the Liberal Party to go into opposition now.

With a bare majority in the lower house, a gaping shortfall in the Senate and a majority of the two-party vote by the barest of margins — secured against a woefully thin election “manifesto” prosecuted with an appalling campaign — it is difficult for the Coalition to argue it has a mandate for anything at all.

The forces ranged against Turnbull in the upper house will see to it that what little authority he has emerged from the election with is smashed to pieces in extremely short order; it is not without reason that this column has questioned whether Turnbull — a decent individual, even if we disagree with many of his ideas — is really cut out to handle the stifling pressure and incessant crisis atmosphere that will soon enough engulf his government.

He faces an opposition “leader” who will continue to be utterly unscrupulous about the tactics and methods he uses to try to destroy the Coalition once and for all; Bill Shorten received no support from this column over the past three years (where a more reasonable Labor leader might have had his or her moments) and he will receive none now.

He faces a Senate hellbent, either by outright intent or through the puppeteering that will be enforced on it from Trades Hall, on laying the groundwork for a thumping Labor win at the next election.

He faces (justified) internal criticism of not just the terrible campaign he presided over, but of his leadership for the duration of 2016 and the dithering, aimless management style that has seen what might have been a solid election triumph squandered.

And in tackling the increasingly urgent problem of Australia’s fast-deteriorating fiscal position — against the backdrop of a likely, cyclical global economic slowdown or recession within the next few years — the only remedial action the Senate is even remotely likely to permit is a massive increase in taxation to preserve what was always Labor’s spending agenda: pinning the mantle of “highest spending government ever” on the Liberal Party, and fixing the budget ahead of Labor’s return to office.

Two problems fixed at a stroke if you’re Shorten; only one that Turnbull will ever be remembered for if he falls into the trap, and one the Liberals will pay for at the ballot box for many, many years to come.

It is appropriate that Turnbull ultimately, if belatedly, accepted full responsibility for the mess that was the Coalition’s election campaign; the real question is whether or not he will accept responsibility for the next, for electoral humiliation in three years’ time is likely to be the price for Turnbull’s survival by a hair’s breadth now.

This is a “victory” of the hollowest possible kind; a government re-elected to do very little will in practice be able to do almost nothing unless it accedes to the belligerence of its opponents, in which case it will be absolutely crucified for its actions.

A perfect storm has been established with more than a little help from the shockingly deficient capacity of the Coalition — from the very top down — to competently prosecute the political imperatives of the excellent position in which it found itself three years ago.

Aside from the government’s ongoing electoral prospects, the biggest victim will be the national interest, which has been heavily compromised for almost a decade, but which is likely to suffer now in ways that haven’t been experienced in 25 years.

Over to you, Malcolm.

 

A Paper, A Poll, The PM And A Prick: It’s Over…And Just Beginning

INELEGANT it may be to say so bluntly, but Bill Shorten is a lying prick: and this candid assessment of the ALP and its pathetic “leader” is, finally and belatedly, the reason it will lose Saturday’s election — possibly very badly. It is an indictment on the Coalition that it should have fallen to a newspaper to enact a rudimentary demolition of its electoral rival: and whilst Malcolm Turnbull will win, retaining government should be the least of his concerns.

“If a man tells you that a mountain has changed its place, you are free to believe it; but if a man tells you he has changed his character, do not believe it.”

— Arabic proverb

It’s one of those ironies that having rounded the straight into the final week of the election campaign, I finally have time to publish content in this column more regularly; and whilst we’ve missed a lot of the campaign here in terms of the day-to-day goings-on of the objectionable circus that has this time passed for an election campaign, there is a sense afoot that anyone who might have tuned out for the past seven weeks would have missed very little at all.

There’s a Newspoll out this morning; The Australian is carrying a poll that shows the Coalition leading Labor after preferences, 51-49, for the first time in months; it shows both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition “leader” Bill Shorten regarded as far more unpopular with voters than popular, and shows the clear but unconvincing lead Turnbull has maintained on the “preferred PM” measure remaining intact.

And that’s about all anyone needs to know about Newspoll today; some of the other polls concur and some still suggest a Labor lead, but just as we said a fortnight ago — when Shorten finally confessed that in order to try to fix the federal budget, a Labor government would have to adopt most of the very savings measures it has flatly opposed since the 2014 budget — the election was probably won or lost the minute Shorten’s press conference ended, and I now believe that in Shorten’s case at least, the losing hand was the one he had attempted to play when the reality of a possible election win collided with the utter crap he had spent nearly three years spreading across Australia.

We already knew Shorten was a liar, and we knew it because he was humiliatingly forced into admitting as much when the ABC’s excellent documentary The Killing Season called out inconsistencies between various (and varying) public accounts he gave at different times where loyalties to successive leaders he knifed in the back during Labor’s last stint in office were concerned.

But since obtaining the ALP leadership in October 2013 (by using union strictures to bind the votes of MPs to override the wishes of grassroots Labor members, almost two-thirds of whom rather astutely didn’t want him), Shorten has had the temerity and the gall to criss-cross Australia, lecturing about “fairness,” masquerading as some paragon of principle, when his words and his actions really constituted nothing more than another colossal set of untruths.

Lies about the parlous state his party left the country in when it was kicked out of office. Lies that untrammelled, profligate spending — doling out wads of the folding stuff to anyone Labor thought could be bought — was responsible and sustainable. Lies about the motives — real, perceived or (almost invariably) fabricated — of his political opponents. Lies about the supposedly pristine state of his beloved union movement, the purity of which is somehow divorced from the pending procession of dozens of his old buddies through the courts to face prosecution on charges arising from a Royal Commission.

Yet just as Shorten tried to assure everyone that he had changed — and that he wasn’t proud that he lied when he was a minister in Julia Gillard’s government, until he sank the dagger into her — his narrative (which might more fittingly be termed a diatribe) has exuded dishonesty, duplicity, and the clear intention to take voters for a ride.

Perhaps the naked lust for power, or some half-baked undergraduate delusion of a “destiny” to be Prime Minister, were just too strong to resist the temptation, but one thing nobody could accuse Bill Shorten of during his term as Labor’s “leader” is being entirely honest.

The thought bubble of perhaps privatising the payment transaction system — just the payments system — that is part of Medicare does not equate to a policy to privatise Medicare altogether: but this is what Shorten has explicitly claimed during weeks of disgracefully misleading campaigning.

His negative gearing policy — lauded by Labor and the shithead trolls it marshals across social media as an end to the “rort” enjoyed by rich people, and which will get the snouts of “piggies” in the property industry and on millionaires’ row out of the trough  — in fact contains a provision that will allow the richest Australians to continue to negatively gear, even on new investments in existing housing stock, writing their losses off against capital gains when they sell their assets in order to (you guessed it) minimise their tax bills: in other words, anyone with deep enough pockets to carry the losses rather than writing them off against their income tax each year (as the 75% of investors earning less than $80k per year do) can negatively gear property until the cows come home, locking those on modest wickets out of the market and permanently tilting the market in favour of the “rich” Shorten claims to despise.

We now know he lied about a large proportion of Joe Hockey’s 2014 budget for two years: suddenly announcing Labor would honour a fair slice of it does not change that fact, and any debate on the political merits of that budget are in fact irrelevant; if those Australians who listened to Shorten for so long vote for him, Shorten’s admission means he will hit them with exactly what he promised he would prevent them from being hit with.

There is no attempt to reconcile how hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending is consistent with a budget deficit already running at $50bn per year that Labor’s own figures now admit will worsen by $16.5bn over four years if its policies are ever implemented.

He deliberately misled voters in late 2013 — when Hockey moved to abolish Labor’s $300bn debt ceiling (itself a stunt to force an incoming Liberal government to be frustrated in the Senate when seeking funds to pay for the recurrent spending Labor left behind) — announcing that the Liberals “were putting debt up to $500bn” when all they were doing was ensuring Labor’s legislated spending, which Senate numbers meant the Coalition had no chance of repealing, did not have to become a daily shitfight for the Coalition to have to prosecute.

Ironically, federal debt has indeed now reached $500bn, as the direct result of the spending traps Labor itself legislated into the budget. But Shorten and his cohorts can’t be honest about that either; they were absolved of all responsibility the day Labor went into opposition, apparently.

It is an indictment upon the Coalition — after a wasted start to the year, and a largely wasted election campaign — that it fell last week to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph to finally smack Shorten down; depicting the Labor “leader” as a liar, and highlighting even more of the dishonest and duplicitous offerings that have emanated from the ALP cabal for years, the Tele belatedly did what the Coalition should have been doing almost three years ago: but never did or, to the extent it tried, its attack was misdirected, poorly framed, and completely ineffective.

BILLY BULLSHIT…at the eleventh hour, Shorten was kicked to pieces over his “principled” positions: the damage from this slapdown will endure longer than any of his vapid promises. (Image: Daily Telegraph)

For the past couple of weeks, luck has been running the way of the Prime Minister — not that he has created any of it, despite his exhortations to do precisely that at the Liberal Party’s campaign launch yesterday.

In fact, Turnbull and Co can probably count themselves as very lucky indeed, for as recently as ten days ago it seemed the election might have slipped from their grasp, and the fact it appears instead to now be a question of how much they will win by owes far more to the actions of others than to any positive movement on the Coalition’s part to present a compelling case for victory.

And there’s the rub.

I think — where the House of Representatives is concerned — that Malcolm Turnbull will now win.

Whether by a sliver or in a canter remains to be seen, for there is still ample time for things to happen between now and polling day.

But winning an election in the lower house really isn’t good enough; not least when a double dissolution for both houses is underway, with the stated objective of “sweeping the current crossbench” out of the Senate, and on the necessary issue of legislating reforms to union governance that have barely rated a mention since Turnbull was granted his election for both houses by the Governor-General.

Even if the Coalition wins a reasonably solid majority in the House, it seems almost certain that it will barely improve its 33 spots in the 76-member Senate, or even go backwards: armed with potent issues to fight on and faced by the least suitable candidate for the Prime Ministership placed in front of voters in at least 50 years, we’re talking about a very poor overall result.

So poor, in fact, that the Coalition may not even be able to bother with a Joint Sitting to legislate the union governance measures it would have won mandates for not just once, but twice: it might simply not have the numbers across the two chambers to win the required votes.

Such a “win” — perhaps as bad as falling across the line in the lower house and going backwards in the Senate — would do nothing to resolve questions posed repeatedly in this column over whether Turnbull is “a solution” as Prime Minister or not, for the hard truth is that he has wasted half a year this year and will have been re-elected to do very little indeed.

At least the thin Coalition program is one that has been placed before voters upfront, however; the pathetic exhortations of Shorten in asking “who do you trust?” — as if stealing lines from John Howard might somehow force people to respect him — are oxymoronic when weighed against the rest of the claptrap he has offered as “leader.”

And whilst it has taken a vicious attack by a Sydney newspaper to belatedly make the rudimentary political attack on a completely unelectable candidate for high office, there is no guarantee the second term of this Coalition government will be any more effective than the first: for all of the same reasons, including poor tactics, inept communications, and a Senate determined to destroy it in defiance of its mandate at literally any cost.

There isn’t even a guarantee Malcolm will make it through a full three-year term as Prime Minister, although in saying that I should point out that such a prospect for uncertainty is merely the “new normal” in Australian politics, not some wish for Turnbull to meet with the same fate as his three most recent predecessors.

But governing — seeing it now appears certain that task will again fall to the coalition — will be no easy feat.

At the start of the final week, I see a Coalition win and a Labor “leader” in line, quite deservedly, to be humiliated. If it comes to pass, Shorten will have only himself to blame. His colleagues should feel no compunction in terminating his political career next Sunday morning.

Barring some miracle, retaining office is now the least of Malcolm Turnbull’s concerns: and having paid scant attention to the Senate until yesterday (by which time it was almost certainly too late to have any meaningful impact on voting for the upper house) there are already some in Coalition circles prepared to privately concede that this is one election that it might be better to lose, for the coming quagmire is one it alone will be blamed for — irrespective of what vandalism Labor and the Greens, perhaps in cahoots with Nick Xenophon and/or the insidious Jacqui Lambie, subsequently get up to on the floor of the Senate.

 

Double Dissolution: Why Turnbull Was Right To Confront The Senate

NOTWITHSTANDING signals from some polls — and some pundits, including myself — of a tight election that may yet see Labor triumph, an issue that will receive scant attention in this campaign is the role of the Senate, and the bluntly pro-Left battering ram it has become. The present Senate is not “democratic.” Electoral laws that allow its abuse by the Left have been axed. Win or lose, Mr Turnbull has rightly bleached a stain on Australian democracy.

There is a scenario doing the rounds in the mainstream commentariat this week — not without reason, I might add — that having invested so heavily in engineering a double dissolution and having so emphatically framed it as a battle to eradicate lawlessness in the construction industry, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could win a narrow majority in the House of Representatives that is insufficient to overhaul its minority in the Senate, making it impossible to muster the numbers to pass bills at a Joint Sitting of Parliament: rendering the disputed bills, and the entire pretext for a double dissolution, redundant.

It would amount to a humiliation that, were this nightmare scenario to materialise, would justify (if not demand) Turnbull’s resignation.

Yet the truth is that most voters — generally uninterested in politics and often resentful at being forced to pay it any attention at all — won’t even consider the context of a double dissolution election even this closely, let alone delve deeper into the issues that have led to Parliament mostly being an unproductive quagmire for the past three years.

I have been reading an article by Paul Kelly in The Australian this morning, and given we’re embarking on an election campaign of unprecedented duration, I thought it might be an opportunity to revisit the fraught issue of the Senate; the double dissolution itself is only half the story, for this election will take place under amended electoral laws that dispense with group ticket voting (GTV) that relies on preference deals determined in advance by parties and independent candidates, and allows for the first time voters to optionally allocate their own preferences to control where their votes are ultimately directed.

Back in the early 1990s, I was a very hotheaded member of the (sizeable) contingent who found it outrageous that then-PM Paul Keating should dare to describe the Senate as “unrepresentative swill;” of course, the subsequent years have shown Keating was absolutely correct, and the chief role of the Senate seems to have evolved over the ensuing 20-odd years to amount to little more today than a battering ram to bludgeon and seek to destroy a conservative government by making it impossible for it to govern.

Before any of our friends on the Left who read my stuff start protesting, I should restate my long-held belief that a government elected to power with a majority in the lower house should generally be entitled, in ordinary circumstances, to be able to govern for three years at a time and to secure the passage of its legislation; there is no codified status as a “house of review” ascribed to the Senate in the Constitution, for the true role of the upper house — long since usurped by the two-party system — is as a States’ House.

It goes without saying, of course, that no political party will ever legislate to force the Senate to act purely on the basis of state interests, for to do so would be to necessarily remove the presence of political parties from the Senate altogether. It ain’t going to happen, and so the next best thing is to ensure that without creating an automatic rubber stamp, the composition of the Senate broadly reflects the wishes of the Australian public as expressed by their preference for a government at the ballot box.

In this sense, it should also be noted that there is no right to seats in Parliament for micro-parties, Independents or selected minorities embedded in the Constitution either: and those who wheel this fatuous argument out to decry “authoritarian” Senate reforms that “diminish diversity” need to get a handle on both themselves and the fact that elections are chiefly concerned with choosing governments — not with the execution of left-wing social policy.

That comes later, if indeed it must.

Kelly tells the story today (that we have sporadically touched upon here) of the bills to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission: taken to the people as a promise by the Tony Abbott-led Liberals in 2013, the Coalition’s mandate on this issue was flatly ignored by a Senate bent on trying to destroy the government as much as with safeguarding the unregulated environment in which unions presently operate.

He tells the story of the Heydon Royal Commission into the union movement — another promise taken to the electorate in 2013 by Abbott — and the reprehensible lengths the Senate, stewarded by Labor’s Penny Wong and abetted by the Greens and a large contingent of the crossbench, went to in trying to have the Inquiry shut down and/or Heydon’s position terminated: including the improper and undemocratic attempt to politicise the office of the Governor-General in seeking to have Sir Peter intervene in a breach of both protocol and convention.

The attempt also shattered forever Labor’s long-held position that the Governor-General “takes advice from his Prime Minister and from no-one else” — invalidating, at a stroke, 40 years of bitching and complaining about the legal and perfectly proper actions of Sir John Kerr in dismissing the Whitlam government over a parliamentary deadlock in 1975.

He makes the point, implicitly, that Labor’s actions betray its utter enslavement to the agenda and interests of the union movement, be they democratic or otherwise: I don’t think it’s an unreasonable inference to suggest that even if allegations of heinous crimes such as rapes and murders and the like had emerged from the Heydon Commission (which they didn’t, just to be clear) then the ALP would still have acted as an apologist hand puppet for its union masters and assisted their endeavours to evade enforcement of the law.

And he correctly asserts that the antics of the Senate over the past three years — blocking, for example (and this is an old story) virtually every Coalition measure to rein in expenditure whilst allowing anything that increased spending to pass, in a brazen enterprise to perpetuate the vandalism and sabotage Labor deliberately wrought on the federal budget once it knew it was returning to opposition — belie a realignment of power between the Senate and the House of Representatives, with the former strengthened in relative terms against the upper.

The structure of the Senate and the system used to elect it, as regular readers well know, has long been a particular bugbear of mine; we have discussed these matters often over the past five years, and newer readers can peruse a small selection of historic material here, here and here: some of which touches directly on the matters at hand this morning.

The great villain in the piece — and which has enabled the Senate to evolve into the shameful stain on Australian democracy that its current incarnation represents — was the suite of reforms introduced by the Hawke government in 1984 (with the foolish support of the National Party guaranteeing their passage) which enlarged both Houses of Parliament, introduced the now-familiar options for voting above or below the line, and which established the GTV scourge that has in recent years spawned the phenomenon of “preference harvesting” or “preference whispering” and ultimately led to the cesspool the upper house is today.

To be fair, the House of Representatives needed to be enlarged in 1984, having remained relatively unchanged in size for almost 40 years whilst the Australian population exploded, and it needs to be enlarged again now; after the 1984 charges, a lower house MP was responsible for the service of roughly 60,000 electors; today, thanks to population growth, each MP is responsible to almost double that number. The 125-seat House that grew to 150 in 1984 should really now be expanded to 180 seats. In 20 or 30 years’ time, it will need to be enlarged again.

But the Constitution (and specifically, S24 of it) mandates that “as nearly as practicable” the House of Representatives should be composed of double the number of Senators — the so-called “constitutional nexus” — which means that to enlarge the lower house is to also enlarge to upper, cutting the required quota of votes under the proportional system used to win election to the Senate, and perpetuating the dysfunction that has marked the upper house for too long in recent times.

A kind view says that the 1984 changes could retrospectively be seen as having had the unintended effect of creating the mess the Senate has become.

But Labor — whose fury over what happened in 1975 has dimmed, but will never really diminish — was hellbent on seeing to it that such a fate could never again befall a government it formed, and I have always believed the splintering effect upon the ability of major parties to win Senate majorities that has flowed from those changes was deliberate.

Yes, the Howard government won a Senate majority for its last term in office; this was an anomaly, not a readily replicated precedent.

But for the past 40 years, the splinter parties that have emerged in Australian politics have mostly sprung up on the Left — the Greens especially — and by lowering the bar to parliamentary entry, the likelihood was always that unless the Coalition could corral close to 50% of the upper house primary vote at consecutive elections it could never achieve a majority there, whilst the proliferation of new left-leaning entrants to the Senate offered the ALP the eventual prospect of control of the Senate (in partnership with some of these minor entities) whether it held office or not.

And that is precisely where the Senate result in 2013 — added to the Senate results in the states from 2010 — sees us today.

The long and the short of all of this — until Turnbull’s legislation to overhaul Senate elections was passed — is that the upper house has morphed into an institution likely to deliver effective control of the Senate (with the Greens) to any Labor government formed in the lower house, whilst providing the muscle to block anything introduced by a government formed by the conservative parties.

This power has been repeatedly abused over the past three years, although the tactical and strategic ineptitude of the Abbott government’s “brains” trust meant that it was never exploited and turned to the Coalition’s advantage: instead, every defeat inflicted on the government simply emboldened the Senate, rather than spurring the Coalition to a public discussion of the role of the Senate to turn opinion in its favour, quickly engineering a pile of double dissolution triggers to give itself recourse against the upper house, and setting the crossbench up for an electoral mauling when it next faced voters.

You can’t say the government has demolished the standing of the crossbench even now: still behaving as laws unto themselves and spared any meaningful scrutiny in a huge portion of the media, most of its members are openly campaigning for the protection of their well-remunerated sinecures with a near-total disregard for the national interest.

And in my view, the only surprise to emanate from the Senate since the ALP lost power three years ago is that it didn’t try to force an election by blocking one of the Abbott government’s budgets. It astounds me that no attempt was made to do so. But it is the only mechanism for attempting to destroy an elected government through sheer bloody-mindedness that it hasn’t tried.

At the very minimum, the nexus of S24 must be broken, so the House can be enlarged without the need to bloat the Senate any further: the change will require a referendum, and it will require wiser heads than presently reside in Canberra to make the public case for it. In any case, the promise to freeze the size of the Senate at 76 members (or to cut it back to the 64 that applied before 1984) would go a long way to winning public favour. Australians don’t like politicians. Promising to limit increases in the number of them, or even to cut the number of them, are likely to be well received.

It is a great shame that so few will give a second thought to these issues, as Australia’s date with the polling stations on 2 July approaches; paradoxically, the voting public that may yet react against the Coalition over perceptions of chaos, the inability to pass its legislation and the sense the government “owns” the embarrassment the Senate has been will probably give little or no consideration to the fact Turnbull has had the bottle to finally push through changes that should sound the death knell for the kind of shenanigans the Senate has chosen to engage in.

But the bigger issue is what we actually elect MPs for: it might be legal to stonewall, to defeat, and to seek to destroy a government by rendering the Senate so uncontrollable as to sabotage that government, but it isn’t right.

Yes, Lefties, I know what you’re going to say; how can I suggest such a thing when I’m an ardent supporter of what happened in 1975? But two wrongs do not make a right, and in any case there was a real crisis of governance in the latter stages of the Whitlam government: the country was in chaos, and the Whitlam government had descended into little more than an unending string of ministerial scandals. Labor’s (and the Greens’) beef with the Abbott government boiled down to no more than a dislike of his government’s agenda. They were entitled to take such a view, of course. But their charge against Abbott paled in comparison to the track record of Whitlam and his cohorts.

Either way, events some 40 years ago do not justify the Senate being turned into a blatant battering ram or blunt object for the exclusive political benefit of the ALP and the Greens.

Nobody owns the Senate, although for the past six years, it has been held in an iron grasp by the forces of the Left: and their number — aided by left-leaning micro-parties and Independents, whose election was only possible due to a self-interested fix by the ALP 30 years ago — has grown to the point that it had become virtually impossible to remove the Left’s control of the chamber at an election once the preference games that GTV made possible had been initiated.

And it should be noted that Turnbull — even in an (unlikely) thumping victory in July — stands little chance of winning a Senate majority. That isn’t the point.

With a quota for a Senate place now much more likely to amount to exactly that in practice — and to hell with “diversity” arguments to justify Senators winning spots with half a percentage point of the vote — the result of the coming election will more closely (but of course, not precisely) reflect the broad wishes of a majority of the electorate, and that is just how it should be.

Whether you plan to vote Liberal, Labor or for someone else — and irrespective of what you think of Malcolm Turnbull personally — he deserves credit for the changes that have been legislated, and the contribution to improving outcomes of governance in this country that will flow from them will be an enduring one.

 

Newspoll: Turnbull Losing Friends And Alienating People

HIS TWO-PARTY number may be healthier — with a bounce within the margin of error — but approval of Malcolm Turnbull among Newspoll respondents has continued its gradual but uninterrupted descent, and now sees the Prime Minister with a negative rating. The Coalition is paying for scandals, inertia and a vapid opposition trying to win favour just as opinion of Turnbull nears the more familiar depths of his first stint as Liberal Party leader.

I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief this morning, as there is another issue I will revisit (time permitting) later in the day, and after people have had the opportunity to digest the latest Newspoll — published in The Australian — but despite an Ipsos poll last week that showed the federal Coalition regaining a 53-47 advantage over the ALP, a more believable result from Newspoll has well and truly destroyed any sense of faux triumph that particular survey might have tempted government figures to indulge themselves with.

If you stand with the Coalition, you might be cheered by the fact Newspoll has found support for the government has risen slightly, boosting a two-party preferred voting intention figure from the 50-50 results of the past month to a 51-49 lead over the ALP; such an increase is, of course, wholly within the usual 3% margin of error associated with Newspoll, and thus might not even exist, and it probably doesn’t make any appreciable difference at all to the average level of Coalition support across all of the reputable polls, which is probably now slightly more than 51% thanks to the Ipsos finding I have a hunch might have been a rogue.

But if your political inclination is toward the Coalition, you will probably be aghast to learn that Malcolm Turnbull’s fall from favour has continued, with Newspoll finding more voters (44%) disapprove than approve (39%) of his performance as Prime Minister; with an election in the offing and many warnings in this column and by others about elevating Turnbull to the Prime Ministership — ever — a trip down memory lane illustrates quite starkly just how deleterious this trend, apparently without end, might prove in terms of the government’s re-election prospects.

A chronically unpopular leader will eventually drag support for his or her party down — sooner or later — as even Tony Abbott, who won an election with terrible approval numbers, ultimately proved in 2014 and 2015; dismissed as this polling index might often be, it’s the kicker that always gets you in the end.

And I see no reason for the latest incarnation of Turnbull to fare any differently.

I want to talk about the Newspoll published on 30 November 2009 today — the day, incidentally, before Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership to Tony Abbott — because I think there are important parallels between the historic numbers shown in the attached file and the trend Newspoll has lately identified where the Prime Minister’s performance is concerned; it may be a long-seeming bow to draw at first blush, but I would ask readers to bear with me.

First, have a look at Turnbull #1’s personal approval and disapproval numbers in the 2009 polls; with the number of respondents satisfied riveted in the low to mid-30s and those dissatisfied ranging between 48% and 54%, the 39-44 split on these questions that Turnbull achieves in today’s polls are a mere hop, skip and a jump away from mirroring those dreadful numbers perfectly.

Yes, Tony Abbott’s numbers were sometimes worse, but conversely some of those Turnbull numbers from 2009 (particularly the 32-54 finding from October 2009 for a negative approval rating of -22%) were every bit as bad as some of the figures recorded by Abbott when there was nothing particularly noteworthy happening to influence them. These are the kinds of numbers that get political leaders assassinated in the dead of the night, and Turnbull is again nearing the very worst levels of voter support that he plumbed during his disastrous initial stint as Liberal leader.

What should scare the hell out of the boffins trying to mastermind a Coalition re-election strategy is that with the exception of the scandals that engulfed ministers Mal Brough, Jamie Briggs and Stuart Robert (nothing to be explained away, but nothing that should destroy a leader’s standing, either, if correctly handled) is that there has been no detonation of nuclear proportions to hack away at Turnbull’s support this time, as there was in 2009 during the “Utegate” scandal and his foolish use of an unvalidated, and fabricated, email from public servant Godwin Grech to pursue then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Secondly, check out the “preferred PM” findings from the 2009 polls; they are remarkably consistent, with Rudd averaging about 64-18 over Turnbull across the two-month period.

It is safe to say in hindsight that at least some of this colossal lead was simply the product of incumbency; it is historically rare (but not unheard of, of course) for an opposition leader to best a Prime Minister on this measure, and it is almost a default reality that a first-term government will feature a leader who commands a solid lead over the opposition pretender unless something has gone drastically wrong (as it did with Abbott versus Shorten after the 2014 budget, although even then, Shorten was unable to maintain a consistent lead over Abbott, nor a lead of any more than a few points at a time).

In today’s Newspoll, Turnbull’s lead over Shorten on this measure is 52% (-3%) to 21% (unch): 15 percentage points lower than the aggregate 64-18 advantage enjoyed by Rudd over Turnbull, with the trend over the past few Newspolls being for the gap to narrow, and whilst the current lead appears solid enough at first glance, it is harvested off a marginal voting intention advantage and by a Prime Minister whose personal disapproval has just dipped into negative territory for the first time.

Rudd, as we know, was already showing the early signs of implosion at the end of 2009: more reason still as to why big leads on the “preferred PM” measure really don’t matter a can of beans. Seven months after the last of the 2009 results I’ve shared today was published, Rudd was gone; and when he was overthrown in a midnight coup in June 2010, he still commanded a healthy lead over Abbott on this question.

But finally, have a look at the question — relating to Kevin Rudd’s ill-fated Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — at the bottom of the 2009 link.

We all know what Malcolm Turnbull stands for — a republic, carbon taxes (or “market-based mechanisms” as he used to call them), legalising gay marriage, and other socially left-leaning postures — and much of his agenda is anathema to a large proportion of the Liberal Party’s voter base, and to conservative Liberals (who comprise a majority of that base) in particular.

When Malcolm made a stand to support the CPRS, it was the last of a thousand self-inflicted sabre cuts that cost him the Liberal leadership: then, as I suspect now, the politics of carbon are so politically toxic that should they become the focus of another election campaign, whoever champions such things the loudest (currently Bill Shorten, but you never know) might pay dearly for it at the ballot box.

But this is no longer assured, for in the present environment Turnbull’s ratings are in freefall at a time he is not only refraining from a gung-ho prosecution of his perennial pet issues, but advocating very little else either: the mess the government has made over its tax “reform” debate is an object illustration of this.

In short, it seems Malcolm is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

And this enigmatic truth that seems to be slowly engulfing the Coalition will, I think, become stronger if Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison find, as reported this morning, $9bn to cut company taxes at a time the federal budget is awash with red ink, with no personal tax cuts for wage and salary earners, and the charge quite open to his opponents to make that he has wimped it on substantial taxation reform.

Assuming, that is, the business tax cut doesn’t go the way of every other option Turnbull and Morrison have canvassed and jettisoned to date.

The point is that what Turnbull has been doing — or not doing, as the case may be — is slowly beginning to work the Coalition back toward the position that necessitated a leadership change in the first place last year, and whilst it mightn’t get as bad as the wipeout Turnbull threatened to preside over had he lasted to an election in 2010, the Coalition doesn’t have to fall much further in reputable polling for an election loss to become a distinct possibility.

If it isn’t already.

No, Turnbull isn’t faced with a popular leader (as Rudd still was in late 2009) and no, the ALP doesn’t have anything of real value to offer the electorate, but that didn’t stop Queenslanders restoring Labor to the government benches in state Parliament a year ago after a single term.

I just wanted to look at today’s Newspoll from a different perspective than usual, and I’d be interested in what thoughts readers might have about both the state of political health of the government and the parallels I’ve drawn between Turnbull #1 and Turnbull #2.

But ultimately, the message is crystal clear: having wasted the chance to score a smackdown victory at a December double dissolution election, the longer Turnbull now waits to go to the polls, the likelier it will become that the government will be defeated.

As the 2009 numbers show, Turnbull has form for losing friends and alienating people. Based on today’s Newspoll, it is a dubious skill whose handiwork is once again on display for all to see. The big question is how far it can go on before it drags the government down with it.

 

Senate Reform, Compulsory Voting, And Sorely Needed Common Sense

TO suggest proposed Senate reforms (which seem set to pass with Greens’ support) are tantamount to an attempt to “rig” the Senate is risible, given they merely go halfway to reversing an unapologetic attempt to rig it 30 years ago; not coincidentally, the old chestnut of the “merits” of compulsory voting has also reared its head. On these, and other causes useful to the Left as pretexts for outrage, common sense and perspective are sorely overdue.

One of the most insidious aspects of the system used to elect the Senate that is the subject of increasingly acrimonious debate is that it’s taken 30 years — 30 years — for its full potential as an implement with which to wreck Coalition governments to become fully apparent; yes, the Howard government won a Senate majority in 2004, but it’s only in the past few electoral cycles that a 76-member Senate, coupled with Group Ticket (or “above the line”) Voting, has been strategised by admittedly clever people to game out the election of irrelevant minor “party” Senators with next to no popular support.

Even many of the candidates who participate in complicated Senate preference deals have been quite open in recent years about the fact that none of them know who will be elected as a result of their machinations until the votes are tallied; and so-called “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery has similarly made no bones about the fact his handiwork is contrived merely to facilitate the ascension of minor candidates whose prospects for victory would otherwise be non-existent.

I have written in the past of the travesty of the Hawke government’s 1984 Senate “reforms” — introduced with a poker face by Labor and legislated, ridiculously, with National Party support — which were callously motivated by consuming hatred and a determination to ensure the events of November 1975 could never again befall a Labor government; wrapped in the fig leaf of the need to increase the size of the House of Representatives (a measure, in isolation, that I agree was necessary, and is again as we speak) a better course of action would have been to hold a referendum, with bipartisan support, to expunge the nexus spelt out in S24 of the Constitution that stipulates the House of Representatives must “as nearly as practicable” be composed of double the number of members as sit in the Senate.

Yes, referendums are notoriously difficult to pass, but this one would have been a slam-dunk: campaigning on a promise to limit the Senate to 64 Senators, bipartisan support would have secured its assent from voters as a measure to permanently cap at least some of the future increases in the number of politicians being sent to Canberra.

With each lower house MP now responsible to almost 120,000 voters — double the number in 1984 — there is a case to enlarge the House once more to, say, 180 seats; increasing the Senate to 88 spots is clearly neither desirable nor warranted, so even now, a move to cut the Senate back to 64 seats to offset some of the increase in the lower house could still secure the change I’m talking about at a referendum if the major parties all backed it.

Yet whether they do or not, for as long as the Senate retains its current composition of 76 members, one primary objective of the 1984 changes will remain: the reduced quotas required to elect a Senator, as six Senators are elected from each state at a half-Senate election rather than five, as had previously been the case; this in itself makes it easier for minor parties and Independents to win election to the upper house.

Adding Group Ticket Voting — with its antediluvian and incandescent preference flows forged behind closed doors and away from public attention — merely sets that bar far lower again than anyone could defend as “democratic,” although some of the beneficiaries with their snouts in the trough thanks to GTV would beg to differ.

I’ve had a read of an article appearing in the Fairfax press this morning that proclaims that should measures proposed by the Turnbull government to abolish GTV be passed, the Coalition would be able to obtain an outright Senate majority at a double dissolution this year, and my response, frankly, is “so what?”

For one thing, there is no existential mandate on the Senate’s part to ensure it is permanently and implacably controlled by parties other than the elected government in the lower House; for another, there is similarly no overriding stipulation that the parties of the Left should be able to jointly muster a majority when Labor holds office, whilst the Coalition is held hostage to an anti-conservative rabble elected on a rigged proportional system whenever Labor is in opposition. But that is the end destination of the 1984 “reforms,” and the 2010 and 2013 elections — with Senate voting gamed out to stock the crossbench with mostly irrelevant occupants — have created exactly such a system.

It isn’t the Coalition’s fault that Labor has lost perhaps 20% of its bedrock support to the Greens over the past 15 years, as its hard Left flank jumped ship to the regimented socialist party and stayed there; similarly, it isn’t the Coalition’s fault that Labor on its own never controlled the Senate between 1951 and 1984 (on a proportional system introduced, no less, by a Labor government in 1948).

By introducing Optional Preferential Voting “below the line” — meaning voters number six boxes to elect six Senators at a half-Senate election, or 12 boxes for 12 Senators at a double dissolution — and abolishing GTV altogether, the filthy situation of people being elected with just a couple of percentage points of the overall vote (or less) will be made virtually impossible.

And that is precisely how it should be.

When I talk to those known to me who are active on the Left of politics and ask them to justify how Ricky Muir could have been elected with 0.51% of the 3.72 million votes cast in Victoria, or how Bob Day (Family First) could win with 3.8% of the vote in South Australia or John Madigan (DLP) in 2010 with 2.3% in Victoria, they can’t: they simply rattle on about how “diversity of voices” is a “good thing,” and accuse me of being “undemocratic” for advocating the removal of the fix that makes these people’s tenure in Canberra possible at all with virtually no popular support.

(As an aside, I think any Senate candidate or ticket polling less than 5% of the primary vote should be disqualified from election, for even at a double dissolution, 5% of 12 Senators in any given state does not equal one Senator. But opposed as I am to proportional elections anyway, that’s a discussion for another time).

Yet under the reforms the Coalition is looking to secure, the Greens are seemingly ready to help pass them in the Senate, much to Labor’s petty, vapid chagrin; the Greens would still retain a healthy presence in the Senate (regrettably) even after these changes are made, as would South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, which is perhaps why both are lining up in support of the changes.

But Labor (which would stand to gain in future, if not perhaps this year) remains flatly opposed, for no better or more discernible reason than the ingrained desire to render Coalition governments dysfunctional, and such a silly stance reflects more on the ALP’s unfitness for office than it does on the proposed changes.

The Fairfax article notes the Greens would see their representation cut from 10 to 8 at a double dissolution under these changes, but in all likelihood that would happen anyway; those Greens’ Senators elected in 2010 — when their party took a record 6 Senate berths at a half-Senate election — won at the very zenith of their party’s all-time support, and even with lower quotas at a full Senate election, a reasonable judgement is that the overall Greens vote is going to go backwards anyway.

And as for the Coalition seizing control of the Senate at a double dissolution now, it should be noted that Palmer United Party Senators elected in Queensland, WA and Tasmania — along with NSW Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, who scored a lucky double strike by both getting away with the registered name of his party and drawing the “donkey vote” column at the far left-hand side of the NSW Senate ballot paper in 2013 — are all sitting in what ordinarily could have been expected to be additional Coalition Senators elected three years ago. That the Palmer rabble has, jointly and severally, voted to stymie the Coalition at almost every turn has largely enabled the Senate obstruction and chaos Labor has been able to marshal and inflict since that time.

The predictable outrage from minor parties — like HEMP, as quoted in The Age — should, frankly, be ignored: and if the ALP doesn’t like these changes, perhaps it would be better served diverting its energy to winning (in tandem with the Greens if necessary) a majority of the upper house vote after preferences, which in 65 years it has achieved only in 1983, 2007 and 2010.

Just as the strong Coalition wins of 2001 and 2004 delivered a Coalition Senate majority, so too did the strong “Left” wins of 2007 and 2010 deliver Labor and the Greens the Senate. It’s not rocket science. But permanently tilting the playing field in the Senate against either side of politics by rigging the system is not the way to go about getting it.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the perennial issue of compulsory voting reared its ugly head on the ABC’s disgraceful #QandA programme last night, and whilst I don’t propose to get into everything that was discussed on that oxymoronic “Adventures in Democracy” show, it’s worth reiterating that I think compulsory voting is a disgrace.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest compulsory voting benefits the Left, forcing as it does those who couldn’t care less or who don’t bother themselves with politics to vote, and the handout mentality of the Left is often the path of least resistance for these people; whether it does or it doesn’t, however, the simple facts are that a) every Australian citizen over the age of 18 is entitled to a vote at elections in this country; and b) they are denied the freedom not to vote if they don’t want to.

I have already dealt with the obvious objection to the second of those statements once this morning: that people simply have to show up and get their names crossed off, and on one level, that’s true.

But it is also an offence under the Electoral Act to encourage people to do that, and fail to vote; and forcing people to stuff spoiled ballot papers in ballot boxes with often obscene messages scrawled across them to avoid a fine is hardly a sophisticated ingredient of a modern democracy.

Left-wing loudmouth Van Badham will, I’m sure, be counting a renewed traffic flow today through an offensive article she authored a few years ago for The Guardian on this issue, for I saw it retweeted multiple times last night on Twitter; I strongly urge all readers to peruse Ms Badham’s rantings — replete with assertions that those concerned with liberty and expanding freedom also occupy themselves with “titty-porn,” pig shooting and “MILF mags (sic)” — for despite the colourful if malodorous language, her arguments are in fact representative of the pro-compulsory voting clique.

I’m not going to bog down exhaustively on this issue, but suffice to say Ms Badham, as usual (and as most recently illustrated only a few weeks ago) completely misses the point.

In the context of any renewed debate over compulsory voting, nobody is suggesting the right to vote should be taken away from anyone: especially the “poor, isolated, minimally educated, sick, low-paid, casualised or vulnerable” groups she nominates as likely to “vanish” if compulsory voting were abolished. They will only vanish if they choose to. Their right to vote will remain intact.

But to listen to the dictatorial, illiberal finger shakers and pedlars of moral outrage from the Left like Badham, you’d think the sky would fall in; I counter that to force people to vote is hardly democratic, and that if they don’t want to vote they should be entirely free to make that choice.

Irrespective of what the obnoxious Badham and her mates think.

One way forward would be to formalise the obligation to simply get your name marked off the electoral roll, and thereafter leave the choice to the voter: compulsory attendance at an election, yes, but the freedom not to vote if you don’t want to take a ballot paper. The state would discharge its obligation to actively provide every Australian citizen with an opportunity to vote. What the citizen does with it is up to them.

Yes, some who waive their right to vote at a particular election might have second thoughts later that day: too bad. After all, once you’ve voted you don’t get a second crack at it, and nor should you if you decline a ballot paper and change your mind an hour later. There goes that objection.

It needn’t be complicated: a presiding officer would mark the names as per current practice, and dispense ballot papers to intending voters; as for those waiving their right to vote, providing the information is depersonalised within rigorous guidelines, the numerical statistics on non-voters would be very useful for socio-demographic research.

It might also serve as a boot in the arse to political parties with nothing of substance or value with which to earn support (and right now, I’m looking in your direction, Bill Shorten).

But at the end of the day — on Senate voting, compulsory voting, or on any number of pet issues advanced by the Left that are defended with illiberal, anti-democratic motives and voluble abuse to render dissent silent — it’s about time some old-fashioned common sense prevailed in dealing with these relatively straightforward questions, rather than endless bickering and petty political posturing, particularly where the iron fist of the Left clad in an iron glove is concerned.

And if common sense is too much to ask for, then perhaps certain sections of the media ought to examine their editorial priorities, and reassess just how much airtime and column space is gifted to “Adventures in Democracy,” or red herrings like Vanessa Badham, and instead concern themselves with outcomes that are in the best interests of this country — not some obsessive, narrow and militantly socialist cabal whose idea of reality consists of the rest of us doing just as they choose.