The changes to Senate voting proposed by Malcolm Turnbull and backed by the Greens and Nick Xenophon, represent unprecedented government interference in the Australian democratic system.
For all the talk about voters having to mark six boxes above the line on the ballot paper, the new laws will still allow a mark in one box above the line to stand as a legitimate vote. So let's not kid ourselves that this is somehow a voting system that is in any way inclusive of small parties.
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The case against senate reform
Government plans to change how the senate is elected would eliminate minor parties and make Nick Xenophon a kingmaker, argues Senator David Leyonhjelm
For Turnbull, this legislation is an admission of his failure to be able to persuade and lobby others to agree with his vision for Australia. The imposition of radical electoral laws to achieve his goals does not bode well for the spirit of negotiation, if the Coalition retains office at the forthcoming election.
Whether it's dealing in foreign policy or with unions and social groups at home, we can now expect that Turnbull will reach for the legislative imperative to back his views, whenever he meets resistance. This blunt force approach, an accusation that was so often levelled at Tony Abbott, is not what real political leadership should be about.
We now have a Prime Minister who would rather impose a crude electoral gerrymander to get his way in the Senate, rather than negotiate a considered approach to electoral reform involving the people who actually vote for candidates in the Upper House.
These new laws with regard to voting for the Senate will reshape the Australian political landscape for decades to come. By refusing to debate them with the people of Australia, Turnbull is admitting to the fact that this new legislation is simply designed to get rid of opponents at the next election. He cannot argue with the fact that almost 30 per cent of Australians voted for a minor party at the last Senate election.
The current Senate comprises about 20 per cent minor parties so if there were going to be changes to make a more democratic Senate surely the new laws should have actually favoured minor parties. But even 20 per cent is too much for Turnbull and the huge array of lobbyists who want to see Australia reduced to a US-style, two party system. So the PM legislates minor parties out of existence, rather than working with them and does not acknowledge the 30 per cent of Australians who would like to see more parties in the Parliament rather than less.
For the enablers of this draconian electoral change, the Greens and Nick Xenophon have shown a deeply hypocritical side to their political aspirations that few could have foreseen. Xenophon first entered politics in the 1997 South Australian state election. He polled less than 3 per cent of the votes but went on to win an Upper House seat on the preferences of other minor parties – some, like the Smokers Rights party, not exactly aligned with his anti-pokies platform either. He now has the gall to call out senators who are elected on a similar vote and with similar preference flows.
The case for senate reform
The Greens want to make it more difficult for micro-party candidates to win upper-house election. Senator Lee Rhiannon explains why.
The Greens are even worse. Many Greens senators and state MPs have been elected on similar margins over the last 20 years and have only built themselves up into the force they are on the back of minor party preferences. Greens leader Richard Di Natale has shown himself to be the consummate machine politician who is prepared to jettison all the warm and fuzzy rhetoric about inclusion and tolerance that he brings to immigration and environmental debates. When a convenient opportunity arises to legislate competition out of the way in the federal parliament, he doesn't worry about inclusion and tolerance then.
These new laws are a game-changer for the Greens. Their hypocrisy is writ larger than Xenophon's. In the 2001 Senate election, Greens Senator Kerry Nettle was elected on 4.36 per cent of the vote with One Nation preferences being the clincher. Of the current batch of Green senators, Janet Rice, Sarah Hanson-Young and Peter Whish-Wilson all needed preferences to get elected in the 2013 Senate election. Then the Greens preferenced the big miner, Clive Palmer, as well as Family First's Bob Day.
In a recent interview with Radio National's Fran Kelly, Greens leader Richard Di Natale shot himself in the foot when defending his decision to back the new laws. Claiming that small parties can still get elected under the new rules he cited the case of Senator Glenn Lazarus' vote as a Palmer United candidate. He claimed that he would have been elected under the new laws. In case Di Natale forgot, Clive Palmer threw millions of dollars at that Senate campaign and that is the only way that new minor parties will ever be elected again – with a million dollar bankroll.
If minor parties are eliminated from the Upper House, it is far from fanciful to predict that the Senate will revert to being the house of the landed gentry where massive money and influence will be what it takes to get a new party off the ground and into Parliament. At that point we could see people like Gina Rinehart, James Packer and Twiggy Forrest developing new Senate parties. And, if this happens, the Greens will have to live with that legacy.
So now that things have changed federally, will the Greens start to push for changes at a state level? This will be fascinating to observe. Through their national preference co-ordinator, Luke Edmonds, the Greens have traditionally been the most proficient preference harvesters of all. The back room preference deals the Greens did at the last Western Australian state election put Labor and the Liberals to shame. Hence the Greens demonstrably engaged with preference brokers to stitch up a deal with the Shooters Party.
I don't have a problem with any minor party winning seats at state or federal levels through negotiating preferences with like or even unlike parties. But I do have a problem with balance of power parties, in this case the Greens and Xenophon, saying "do as I say' and not "do as I do".
As a long-time observer of Queensland history and politics, I thought that when former corrupt and authoritarian Queensland Premier Johannes Bjelke-Petersen bowed out of politics, that the days of the electoral gerrymander had disappeared – along with the "Joh for Canberra" campaign.
Sadly, not only is the gerrymander alive and well in federal politics but given the current electoral chicanery and skullduggery in relation to the Senate, so it seems is the ghost of Sir Joh.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, and the author of 38 books, including the coauthored political/sexual satire Going out backwards: A Grafton Everest adventure.