On December 28 last year, The Canberra Times published an article by me with the headline ''Abbott era likely to last just two terms'', to which the editor added the description ''History shows that the Labor Party’s defeat at the federal election was a respectable loss, rather than a landslide''.
Because of a lack of space, the article was confined to the House of Representatives results. In coming to the conclusion that Abbott would be only a two-term prime minister, I contrasted his lower house performance unfavourably with earlier conservative winners from opposition over the past century: Joe Lyons in December 1931 (three wins); Bob Menzies in December 1949 (seven wins); Malcolm Fraser in December 1975 (three wins); and John Howard in March 1996 (four wins).
I summed up: ''In effect, I am predicting that Abbott will win only two elections, in 2013 and 2016, and will be defeated in, say, December 2019, having served in the top job for six years and three months. However, I would not be surprised if Abbott’s term is less than six years.''
The information in question can, of course, be interpreted differently. Thus, for example, Gerard Henderson recently wrote: ''Last September, Tony Abbott achieved one of the largest two-party-preferred votes in modern Australian history.'' Although I didn't discuss the Senate vote, I was aware that Abbott’s Senate vote was the worst ever of any incoming elected prime minister.
Thirty-six senators will be sworn in next month, and Abbott will find himself in a uniquely unfavourable situation. For the first time, a newly elected prime minister will have fewer senators in the new Senate than in the old. Two explanations have been advanced for this. I explain it by asking: ''If you must insist on going to the people with a uniquely unpopular leader, what else would you expect?''
The Liberal Party’s explanation is quite different. It would explain the vote thus: ''We were told to contest the Senate election under a uniquely dreadful electoral system.'' So let me give some facts about September 2013.
In the House of Representatives election, Labor lost 17 seats, of which 14 went to Liberals and three to Nationals. In the Senate election, Labor lost six seats, one per state. Not a single one of those losses went to the Coalition. Indeed, the Liberal Party lost a Senate seat in Victoria, which explains why the Coalition currently has 34 senators but will have 33 next month. The Senate vote was an absolute debacle for both the Labor and Liberal parties.
On paper, Labor’s fall was the greater. Its vote had been 4,469,734 (35.1 per cent) in August 2010, but fell to 4,038,591 (30.1 per cent) in 2013. However, Labor never claimed to have won the election overall. Psychologically, therefore, the Senate vote was more humiliating for the Coalition, which increased its absolute vote in 2013 but its percentage fell.
Looking at the Coalition over the longer term, in 2004, it won 45.1 per cent of the Senate vote, which gave the Howard government a Senate majority. Its subsequent Senate percentages were 39.9 in 2007, 38.6 in 2010 and 37.7 in 2013. The Coalition had 37 senators in the first Howard term and 39 in the fourth. Abbott will have only 33! Both Labor and Liberal seat losses are a true reflection of their lost votes – which tells us much about the fairness of the Senate electoral system.
On Friday, May 9, the joint standing committee on electoral matters of the Federal Parliament delivered its Interim Report on the Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2013 Federal Election: Senate Voting Practices.
Since 36 senators will be sworn in next month, what does the report say about the democratic legitimacy of those senators? On page 2, we have this: ''The final composition of the Senate should reflect the informed decisions of the electorate, and it is clear that the Senate, from 1 July, 2014, will not do that, it will reflect deal making and preference swapping.''
My reaction to that thoroughly over-the-top assertion is to ask for the names of the democratically illegitimate senators. Finally I get it on page 19 with this comment: ''Despite this very small percentage of first-preference votes, senator-elect Muir was elected to the Senate for Victoria in the final vacancy.''
So I am persuaded that the new Senate will include 75 senators reflecting the informed decisions of the electorate and one senator, Ricky Muir, of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, whose democratic legitimacy is under question.
Notwithstanding my criticism of this report, I do think people should read it. However, when you do, I suggest you not be misled by its unanimity.
First, only three parties were represented: Labor, the Liberals and the Greens. Had there been a Nationals member, or had John Madigan or Clive Palmer been a member, there would have been a dissenting report.
Second, the three parties represent declining voter support. I have already given the Labor and Liberal figures, so let me give the Greens. In 2010, they received 13.1 per cent of the vote, with six senators elected. In 2013, that figure was 8.6 per cent, with four senators elected.
I accept all of the recommendations of this report, except one. I am not persuaded that the group voting tickets of the present system constitute the problem of that system. Consequently, I do not favour their total elimination, as the report recommends.
I am not impressed by the scuttlebutt in the report about the operation of group voting tickets in 2013. In my opinion, the problem with the present method of voting is the lack of a reasonable option for electors to vote below the line.
Most importantly, I do not favour the rewriting of electoral history as the Liberal Party seems to want us to do. The fact is, the present system has operated very successfully for 30 years – from 1984 to 2014 – inclusive, over 12 elections. It has been notable for the fairness of the results it has produced.
The Labor and Liberal parties, and the Greens, have every right to dislike the new crossbench senators. However, there are many Australians who think they give us a breath of fresh air. The truth is, substantial numbers of Australians voted for them.
Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus.