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Why is Bill Shorten blocking Senate reform?

The Labor leader is obstructing democratic change because of narrow self-interest.

Amanda Vanstone

What on earth was Bill Shorten thinking when he allowed his party to oppose a sensible reform of Senate voting? The answer is short-term self-interest.

After the last election there was no end of comment on why the Senate system needed reform. The election of several minor-party candidates who secured a minuscule portion of the primary vote led to an outcry.

Senate reform goes to parliament

The government is legislating to change senate elections. Malcolm Turnbull says the current system has been 'gamed' by 'preference whisperers'.

It seemed just about everyone recognised the stupidity of the situation. It made our system look crazy. People who had no realistic expectation of being elected ended up representing their state in the Senate for six years. It's also a fair bet, because of how the voting system works, that the people who elected them never actually intended to do so.

How can that be said? Easily. About 97 per cent of people vote for the party or group of their choice "above the line" on the Senate ballot paper. That's where the major changes of these proposed reforms are concentrated. (Below the line voting, where you mark your preference by all the candidates, will stay as an option.)

Bill Shorten: ruled by self interest, not the national interest.
Bill Shorten: ruled by self interest, not the national interest. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Under current Senate voting rules we are only allowed to number one box when voting above the line, before we lose control of our preference allocation. Preferences are then allocated by the relevant party to other parties through a highly opaque group-voting ticket arrangement according to deals negotiated by political parties. Under the reforms, those group-voting tickets will become a thing of the past.

Some parties have used them to send preferences in three different directions by lodging three different group-voting tickets. A plethora of new, single-issue and front parties, some with the same membership and office bearers as existing parties, are deployed to harvest primary votes that are then directed to each other in a way that is not transparent to voters.

A bright spark, of sorts, figured out some fancy algorithm to govern preference swaps among candidates outside the recognised parties and – bingo! – the Senate was blessed with a number of people who started off with a minuscule proportion of votes.

Under the new system, that practice will stop. You will still have above-the-line voting, to avoid the horror of filling out your preference in order from the first to the last, perhaps 100th, candidate. Rather than choose one box. you will mark six. Ending the group-voting tickets will mean your vote will be allocated according to what you mark on the ballot paper and not according to some back-room deal.

Gary Gray: "He’s 50 miles from being an idiot."
Gary Gray: "He’s 50 miles from being an idiot." Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

After the last election, a joint parliamentary committee recommended change. The unanimous committee report gave those who wanted the system fixed real hope. Enter Labor, headed by Shorten. Inexplicably, they have decided to go against the reform.

Labor frontbencher Gary Gray spoke to the bill in the lower house. He made it clear he supported the reform, but would have to vote against it because his party room did not support it. Gray puts the case succinctly: "The counting of a ballot paper should reflect the intention of a voter and not the desires of ballot manipulators." Hear, hear.

Richard Di Natale: "He refuses to sit in the crazy basket."
Richard Di Natale: "He refuses to sit in the crazy basket." Photo: Andrew Meares

Gray has had ministerial responsibility for electoral matters in the past. He's 50 miles from being an idiot. He's a very political animal. He is also more in touch with the real world than with his own ego – a rarer and rarer quality. Commonsense and a commitment to a better system means he can see why the change should be made. Ditto David Feeney, another MP who is one of the sharper knives in the Labor drawer.

Then there's Shorten. Given that none of the arguments against the reform stack up, I can't help but recall Shorten criticising the Tony Abbott-led opposition for being negative just for the sake of it.

I can't help but recall Labor leader Bill Shorten criticising the Tony Abbott-led opposition for being negative just for the sake of it.

The Greens have agreed to support the bill as they supported the joint committee report, confirming the danger to both major parties that their leader Richard Di Natale represents. He refuses to sit in the crazy basket and consistently shows himself not to be as crazy as the stereotype would have us believe the Greens are. I've appeared before a Senate committee Di Natale chaired. The whole thing was run in a very professional way.

Labor's position is, to quote Gray, sad. We are left wondering why. I think the answer is that Shorten has decided that Labor, knowing the bill will pass, will get the benefit of the legislation in the future. By opposing it now he can suck up to the senators who got elected under the present system and make life harder for the government. Some of these senators have already indicted they will change their votes on, for example, moves to clean up the union movement.

We can see that self interest not the national interest rules both them and Bill Shorten.

Amanda Vanstone is a columnist with The Age and was a minister in the Howard government.

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