Monday, February 22, 2016

Why Senate Voting Reform Actually Reduces Democracy

It is all but certain that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to reform the voting process for the Senate will sail through that very same Senate thanks to a deal negotiated with the Greens. While Mr Turnbull insists the plan is aimed solely at improving transparency, and allowing voters to choose where their preferences flow, there is little doubt that the change will benefit the major parties, at the expense of micro parties and independents. And it is likely to benefit the Coalition more than it will help Labor, because micro parties and independents have historically eroded votes from the right more often than from the left.

It remains to be seen what the outcome will be for the Greens; presumably they would not agree to the changes if they feared that their own existence would be imperilled. However some analysts believe that a double dissolution election under the new rules will see the number of Green Senators reduced from 10 to 8. I suspect that over time, the Greens would see their numbers further eroded, until perhaps they go the same way as the Australian Democrats. Remember them?

The Democrats also reached a deal with an incumbent Coalition government to pass contentious legislation, in that case the introduction of the GST. It was a turning point for the Democrats, and although they loitered on the scene of the crime for a number of years, voter discontent saw their ranks slowly dwindle until eventually they disappeared altogether. Obviously there were other factors involved, but the decision to support the GST was received by many voters as a sign that the Democrats had abandoned their self appointed task to “keep the bastards honest.”

In the same way, the Greens have grown well beyond their original brief as a party of environmental conservation, and have come to relish their role as major political players; so much so that it now appears they no longer believe the phrase “minor party” applies to them. How else to explain their apparent belief that they will be immune to the effects of the voting change they are about to rubber-stamp for the Turnbull Government. Nevertheless, if they are so willing to risk shooting themselves in the foot, there will be little cause to mourn their ultimate demise.

On the other hand, critics of the major political parties will have substantial cause to mourn the loss of representation in the Senate. While the importance and influence of the Greens will most likely wither away gradually, the influence of micro parties and independents will be destroyed at the stroke of a pen, and their seats in the Senate stolen from under them by the changed voting arrangements at the subsequent election.

Now, it is easy to see why some people think that would be a good thing. As Malcolm Turnbull has so pointedly reminded us, Senator Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party was elected to the Senate on the strength of a primary vote amounting to 0.5 per cent, with the help of a complex string of preference deals. On the face of it, such a phenomenon seems to be far from democratic and not at all transparent. Indeed, that is exactly the argument put forward by the Prime Minister when he claims that people have been “gaming the system.”

However, to say that Ricky Muir represents only 0.5 per cent of the electorate is a boldly misleading assertion. Certainly he received the benefit of preferences from people who did not put the number one against his name on the ballot paper. But remember, those preferences all came from people who did NOT vote for the major parties. In that sense, Ricky Muir is the duly elected representative of ALL those people whose first choices did not make the cut, but whose preferences eventually found their way to him. Senator Muir represents the nearly 25 per cent of people who did not vote for either of the two major parties.

On the latest figures from this week’s Newspoll, 43 per cent of voters support the Coalition, 35 per cent support Labor. That leaves 22 per cent who support neither. Of those, 12 per cent support the Greens, and 10 per cent are divided up among the micro parties and independents. On that basis alone, the Senate can only be truly representative of all Australians if those numbers are reflected by the election results. And oddly enough, under the current system, they actually are.

Currently the Coalition has 33 out of the 76 seats in the Senate; that’s about 43 per cent.

Labor has 25 seats, or around 33 per cent; the Greens have 10 seats, or 13 per cent; and the eight cross benchers equate to just over 10 per cent of the Senate.

A consistent 10 per cent of voters support micro parties and independents, and by the magic of our preferential voting system, 10 per cent of the Senate seats are held by (surprise surprise) micro parties and independents.

What could be more representative than that?

And yet, Prime Minister Turnbull is trying to sell us the snake-oil that eradicating the preference deals will somehow make the Senate more representative. Clearly that cannot be the case, when the representation already so accurately reflects the wishes of the people.

On the contrary, Mr Turnbull’s proposals can only make the Senate less representative, by stemming the flow of preferences from minor candidates to other minor candidates. It should be blatantly obvious that this is nothing short of hypocrisy when the major parties carefully negotiate preference deals all the time, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, to maximise their own advantage. To seek to deny this opportunity to smaller parties on the basis that they are somehow less worthy is distinctly unfair, elitist, and just plain bullying.

Of course, given the standard of the discourse on this matter, it would be easy to presume that the minor parties and the independents are in fact less worthy. Once again, poor old Ricky Muir can be held up as an example of an individual considered to be ill prepared for office. But let us not pick on poor Ricky quite so much; how about the colourful Jacqui Lambie with her propensity to speak bluntly even if she is not in full possession of any degree of expertise on any given topic? Or Glenn Lazarus, also given to an exuberant turn of phrase in the right circumstances?

What many people fail to appreciate, and in my opinion it is a pity that they do, is that the present system of voting means that genuine ordinary everyday Australians can actually get elected to the Senate. That is a marvellous thing, and a precious thing not to be discarded lightly. Of course there is always the risk that a ratbag will be elected. But can anyone honestly claim that no ratbags have ever been elected while members of the major parties? Both Labor and the Liberals have had plenty of ratbags, and as for the Greens, well conventional opinion has already written them off as being all ratbags.

The reality is that there are 76 Senators. Most legislation can be passed through sensible negotiations, and when it can’t be passed, perhaps we should consider the possibility that this lack of consensus might indicate a lack of quality in both the proposed legislation and the arguments supporting it. It would be highly unusual for one rogue Senator to ransom the nation, and even less likely that such an individual would continue to have a political career in the aftermath.

And let us not forget that some of the Senators elected under the current system have been considered to be pretty good. Nick Xenophon is widely respected, even by those who don’t agree with his policies. It is something of a paradox that Senator Xenophon supports the proposed changes to the Senate voting procedure. There is no doubt that Senator Xenophon is sufficiently popular that he would not only survive the reform, but he would most likely succeed at having some of his chosen colleagues join him in the Senate.

However, the paradox arises from the reality that Senator Xenophon has only been able to build that popularity and respect because he was elected in the first place. When Nick Xenophon was first elected to the Legislative Council of his home state South Australia in 1997, he won his seat on the strength of a primary vote of 2.86 per cent. It was the flow of preferences that got him over the line. From there he built his reputation and was able to make the leap to federal politics in 2007 on the strength of his track record.

Under the proposed new system, an unknown independent candidate would have little hope of success. In that case, where would the nation’s next Nick Xenophon come from? Are we condemning ourselves to a future where only candidates with the backing of a major party machine can aspire to the Senate?

The beauty of the current system is that it not only allows, it encourages, minority groups to engage in politics and to participate in the process. It fosters a diversity that is more likely to reflect the concerns of the community than would otherwise be the case. But if the reform proceeds, with the imprimatur of the Greens, it will result only in the political elite controlling the flow of their own preferences, while rendering impotent the preferences of their smaller opponents, denying their supporters any kind of voice.

Now, that really is the very definition of “gaming the system.”