Comment

Beware pollies selling Senate reform

  The best place to hide a tree is in a forest. And the best way to avoid real scrutiny of a new law is to swamp people with more detail than they can comprehend – while telling them a simple story about "the big picture". Take for example the current debate about Senate reform.  Because Ricky Muir got elected on less than 0.5 per cent of the primary vote, any change to the law is a good idea. 

Hmmm, I'm not so sure. The Bill describing the biggest changes to the way we elect senators in 30 years was released to the public on Monday and the government and the Greens have agreed that there is no need for a public inquiry into its likely impacts, and it is believed that the bill will become law in just two sitting weeks.  Most alarmingly, they have agreed that the new laws should take immediate effect which means that weeks after the creation of the new laws an election using those new laws could be called. What could go wrong? 

The Australian Electoral Commission has such a good track record of enforcing the existing laws. The Australian public has such a good understanding of the existing electoral laws and how preferences work that they will be up to speed on the new laws in no time. The disparity between existing state voting laws and the new federal voting procedures will have no impact on voters' understanding of the new rules. Yeah, right.

But when there is a "crisis"' who has time for scrutiny? Not only is the passage of the proposed new Senate election rules so urgent that we shouldn't inquire into their impacts, the issue is so pressing that the bills must take immediate force. Otherwise, wait for it, the composition of the Parliament might not perfectly represent the will of the people. Because that has never happened in the last 30 years.

Back in 1984, the ALP and Coalition both preferenced each other ahead of Peter Garrett's newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party. The result was that despite gaining 10 per cent of the vote in NSW Mr Garrett failed to secure a Senate seat. After the 1984 election, neither major party thought Senate voting reform was urgent

Back in 1998 the ALP and Coalition both preferenced each other ahead of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party which, despite gaining around 10 per cent of the vote in three states, failed to secure a Senate seat. Again, after the election neither major party thought senate voting reform was urgent.

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And back in 2001 the Greens' Kerry Nettle defeated the Democrats Vicki Bourne, despite the fact that the Democrats outpolled them. Interestingly it was One Nation preferences that got Kerry Nettle over the line.

Now here's where it gets interesting. The Greens have consistently pushed for changes to the voting laws after each election. While it is not true that they have been pushing for 10 years to enact the specific changes contained in the Bill tabled on Monday, it is true that they have been pushing for changes. So why the change of heart from the Liberals?

In recent years the Liberals' determination to deliver tax cuts for big business and end protection of the manufacturing sector has made it hard for them to retain the vote of conservative working class voters. Similarly, the National Party's support for cuts to penalty rates and the introduction of a Medicare co-payment has isolated the predominantly low income earners who work in regional areas from the party that claims to represent them. The result of this divergence has been the rise of the so-called "right wing micro-parties" at the expense of the Liberals.

Almost no one understands how preferences work but, in short, under the Commonwealth system as it now stands if the candidate you give your first preference to fails to win a seat your vote is transferred at full value to your second favourite, then your third, then your fourth and so on. You can either select a "bundle" of preferences negotiated by the party who you trust with your vote or you can 'choose your own adventure' and vote below the line. Only 3 per cent of voters are so worried about preference deals that they vote below the line.

Under the preferential voting system we currently have you can never "waste" your vote. But with the optional preferential system now embraced by the Liberals if you only put a 1 next to one candidate, and few other voters do likewise, then, when your preferred candidate is "excluded" from the count, your vote becomes worthless. Optional preferential voting often leads to the votes of like-minded voters being "split" between like-minded candidates to the benefit of a single candidate with little in common with either.

There are a number of ways to "empower" voters and "discourage preference whisperers" without taking the radical, and poorly understood, step away from full preferential voting.  The Bill introduced on Monday will not end "gaming" of the system; it will simply encourage the pursuit of new games, and the emergence of new players. 

A full inquiry into the intended, and unintended, consequences of the Bill negotiated between the Greens and the government would help the media and public think through where we now look headed. In short the new system will help the Liberals and Nationals fend off the rising threat from the likes of Ricky Muir, Glenn Lazarus, David Leyonhjelm and Jacqui Lambie. In the medium term it also helps protect the Greens from the emergence of any "left wing micros".  Significantly for the Coalition, if the new rules are used in a double dissolution held in the next few months then the Coalition can simultaneously avoid presenting a new budget while cleaning out the diverse, and uncooperative right wing micros. A pre-budget double dissolution election means that Malcolm Turnbull can both avoid having to rely on either the persuasive power of Scott Morrison or the willingness of the Senators who blocked Abbott's budget to pass his. Put simply, a pre- budget double dissolution gives Turnbull the opportunity for a fresh start without having to do all of the hard sell of a fresh budget.  

So, should the Greens give Turnbull the new election rules he wants, at the time he wants them, just because he is now willing to support one of the wide range of electoral reforms they have pursued for decades?  While that is a judgment for them, for me it seems clear the cons thump the pros.

While it is true that the primary vote of each of the right wing micro party candidates is small, it is also true that their combined vote is now substantial. While the argument that no one should be elected on a primary vote of 0.5 per cent is eminently reasonable, it doesn't follow that it is "fair" that even if the right wing micro parties get 15 per cent of the vote they should get zero per cent of the senate seats. But you can see why the Liberals might think otherwise

Preference deals have had some bad press in Australia in recent years and rightly so. There is no doubt the system needs changing. But agreeing that there is a problem is different from agreeing that any change is better than no change. It doesn't follow that the faster the change the better. 

The Bill introduced on Monday proposes radical changes to the way we elect Senators including a "savings provision" which redefines the definition of an informal vote. Few journalists have managed to explain the changes clearly and even fewer have read it. There's been more public debate on imaginary GST increases than there's been on how our law makers will be selected.

To be clear, an electoral system that encourages parties to put more effort into preference deals than they do into campaigning for votes needs fixing. But after 30 years of the current laws, do we really need to urgently change them in time for the first double dissolution election we have had in decades? Is the passage, or commencement, of the new bill so urgent that a full public inquiry shouldn't be held?

Nick Xenophon was first elected to the South Australian parliament on a primary vote of 2.8 per cent of the primary vote and a swag of preferences. Preferences also got Bob Brown over the line when he entered the senate in 1996. While the success of both men is due to their visions and their values, both got their start via the now demonised "preference deals". 

Stan Grant impressed many last week with his analysis of why the parliament in general, and the major parties in particular, struggle to address indigenous disadvantage. Many Australians wished he would put himself forward as a candidate.

Under the current rules for electing Senators if Mr Grant were able to motivate a large team of volunteers to join him in his goal then, with a good preference negotiator's help, I would give him a good chance of winning a Senate seat. If the bill introduced on Monday becomes law in the next few weeks then the same candidate with the same team of volunteers would have no chance.

There are problems with the system. But the importance of those problems is unrelated to their urgency. The Liberal party's new-found enthusiasm for optional preferential voting is intriguing, and a full public inquiry might flush out the reasons for, and consequences of, their change of heart. Gary Gray is another unexpected champion for empowering the voter. Wouldn't it be great to hear how the man who as ALP national secretary used preference deals to shut One Nation out of parliament explains his change of heart? The Greens have argued for electoral reforms for a long time, but a public inquiry into their new bill might help them better understand the motives of their new allies.

Richard Denniss is the chief economist for the Australia Institute.

 Twitter: @RDNS_TAI 

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