Power plays and pyjama politics

Voters who caught any of Friday's marathon parliamentary debate over proposed changes to the Senate's electoral system probably didn't know whether to laugh or cringe. In what was supposed to be considered discussion of a bill some people argued would entrench major party representation in the Senate at the expense of the minor parties and independents, members indulged in a free-for-all of bombastic posturing. Insults were traded across the chamber, with Labor frontbencher Jacinta Collins accused of being boring. Labor's Stephen Conroy made jokes about Greens leader Richard Di Natale's appearance in a recent magazine article, and at one point, South Australian independent Nick Xenophon tuned up in the chamber dressed in pyjamas, trailing a pillow. Attempts by Labor to end proceedings and resume debate at a later time proved unsuccessful, with the government vying to continue until the bill was passed. This duly occurred on Friday afternoon.

On Thursday, just as the Senate debate got underway, Liberal MP Ian Macfarlane used his valedictory speech in the House to warn that voters saw their politicians as "clowns" because of their "win-at-all-cost" approach to politics. "The fierceness of personal politics and lack of respect for other people's views … is destroying public confidence in this institution", he said. "Is it any wonder when politicians regularly denigrate their opponents, and the media are only too happy to join, that we now find ourselves being referred to in the general populace as clowns, and this place as a circus?"

Mr Macfarlane is right to point out the potentially corrosive nature of partisanship on the Australia body politic, though his assertion that it "is not the norm" is inaccurate. Australian politics at the federal, state and local levels has always been hard, robust and unyielding, thanks in part to the tribalism of the Labor, Liberal and the National parties which dominate those tiers of government. And the behaviour of our federal MPs, particularly during the burlesque performances that pass for Question Time, has always exasperated a sizable number of voters.

Another significant contributor to substandard parliamentary debate in Australia is the party whip system, which is enforced here with a zeal unmatched in any other "Washminster" democracy. Whereas speaking out against party policy – or even crossing the floor to vote with the opposition – is not particularly out of the ordinary in the US Congress or at Westminster, party whips in Australia keep dissenting voices to a minimum. Even in the Senate, where representatives defending state or territory interests have traditionally been allowed greater leeway to dissent from their party lines, the power of the whips has gradually conspired to stifle and curtail open debate.

Indeed, in many respects, Senate debate is now as pro forma and truncated as it is in the House. The only senators "allowed" to express an opinion that dissents from the majority view are the cross-bench independents, the very individuals the Turnbull government seems intent on eliminating from parliament.

It's arguable that Coalition-sponsored electoral changes were a necessary and appropriate response to the gaming of preference flows at the 2013 election, a ploy that resulted in a higher-than-usual number of cross-benchers. That these candidates garnered only a handful of first-preference votes adding to concerns about the subversion of voters' intent. It's equally true, however, that Coalition Senate candidates like Michaelia Cash were also elected with very few first-preference votes.

The Senate voting model put to parliament this week was not the one proposed by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in 2014, which opponents instance as proof of the Coalition's nefarious intent to rid parliament of the crossbench via a double dissolution election. Ironically, however, the Parliamentary Library has suggested most of the crossbench (with the possible exception of Ricky Muir and John Madigan) could survive a double dissolution poll intact, since only half the usual quota is required to win a Senate seat.

The last major Senate voting changes were made in 1983, when the Labor Party (with Coalition support) introduced an "above the line" option to simplify voting. The reform also empowered the parties to direct voter preferences according to their whims, a stratagem Labor believed would work to its long-term advantage. In the event, Labor's Senate vote has declined catastrophically since – an intended consequence of political arrogance which the Coalition may well just have emulated.