Comment

Stuff and nonsense on Senate reform

Recently, The Canberra Times did me a great favour. About two months ago I sent an article to this paper. It was titled Why the gaming must stop, and will.

Perfect timing. When a Victorian crossbench senator rang me the following day all I really needed to do was refer him to that article. However, he did not object when I subjected him to a lecture because I told him everything he wanted to hear.

Senator Nick Xenophon's advocacy of party lists is self-interest.
Senator Nick Xenophon's advocacy of party lists is self-interest. 

There is another reason why the timing was perfect. Two days before its publication there was an item on the ABC radio program PM. It was a very good illustration of why I have become obsessive in my hostility towards Senator Nick Xenophon and ABC analyst Antony Green.

Mind you, both men are very good at their jobs and work hard. Splendid fellows. It is their influence which needs cutting down to size, their propaganda which so irritates me.

The segment in question was joined by two other ABC personalities, Tim Palmer and Natalie Whiting, of whom I offer no criticism. Referring to the options for reform of the Senate electoral system, Whiting said: "Nick Xenophon has put forward his own plans for reform" to which Xenophon briefly described his latest plan.

To the Xenophon spiel, Whiting said: "Those reforms would directly benefit your party, one would think, considering yours would be a recognisable name outside of those two major parties." To that Xenophon gave a reply so sickening I refuse to put it in print.

My objection to both Xenophon and Green is to the way they feed off each other. They dish out the same propaganda (in which, by the way, they are joined by one political party, the Greens), creating the impression that theirs is some standard, reasonable opinion. I now call the pair "the Xenophon-Green axis" or "the axis" for short.

The reality is that, among crossbench federal politicians, Xenophon is outnumbered 11 to one.

I cannot be so precise about Green. I know, however, that he is heavily outnumbered among expert psephologists.

The case that really sticks in my craw is the election of senators for South Australia in September 2013. Xenophon asserts that, under a "democratic" system Sarah Hanson-Young and Bob Day would not now be senators because their places would have been taken by Stirling Griff and Don Farrell, they being the No. 2 candidates from the Xenophon and Labor parties.

And Green chimes in to support Xenophon. Since Green, on their reckoning, is the only independent electoral expert in the country they think their case rests. Griff and Farrell were cheated out of their rightful place as senators.

Incredibly enough the Greens support the reform wanted by the axis.

They have no time for Australia's 19th century constitution (drawn up entirely by men) with its old-fashioned democratic values which take the form of commanding that all our senators be elected in a candidate-based electoral system.

So, why were Hanson-Young and Day elected, and was there anything wrong with their election?

To give my answers to these questions I imagine the election having been conducted under the Hare-Clark system which, as Canberrans well know, is the very best form of the single transferable vote. I can see no reason to doubt that Hanson-Young and Day would have been elected under Hare-Clark.

So, why the squeals from Xenophon? Why has Green given credibility to those squeals? In my opinion the answer is simple: Xenophon is the greatest gamer of systems ever elected to any Australian Parliament. In 2013, however, his game was called out. There were influential people in other parties who thought Hanson-Young and Day more deserving of Senate seats than Farrell and Griff.

It riles the axis to have that result described sensibly. It deprives them of their ability to argue that their reform (and only their reform) deserves consideration.

The axis wants to retain the party boxes because they turn the system into a party-list system.

I won't have a bar of that. I want a candidate-based system as commanded by section 7 of the Australian constitution.

I do not have any particular objection to the group voting tickets (the feature of the system the axis wants to eliminate) yet I am willing to see them go, but only if the party boxes are also eliminated, along with the ballot line, that being the technically correct term for the heavy black line which runs through the ballot paper.

The normal instinct of ordinary people tells them that Xenophon is just any old grubby politician. Therefore the problem is Green who gives intellectual credibility to the kind of disreputable proposals Xenophon is like to conjure up.

Worse still, Green has these massive audiences for his election-night commentaries.

So, let me take Green apart intellectually with two quotes from his blog post of June 22 this year. The first is this:

"Some have proposed to abolish the division of the ballot paper and return to making voters express preferences for candidates. The problem that advocates of this approach must face is that 98 per cent of voters have chosen to vote above the line. It would be an enormous education task to return voters to voting for candidates."

By "some have proposed" he means the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, Crispin Hull and me. The sentence on what we propose is a correct description but his two comments are rubbish.

He knows as well as we do that the 98 per cent statistic has been created by a system in which the below-the-line requirement is so unreasonable that voters are intimidated into voting above the line.

Then we have this from Green later in the same post, describing the reform the axis wants: "Under the proposed system, the only preferences that would count are those filled in by voters themselves, the same as for House elections."

Wrong! The system wanted by the axis (and the Greens) would still have party boxes so the ballot paper would still invite electors to give their votes to party machines.

Finally, section 7 of our constitution for the Senate and section 24 for the House both command that our federal politicians be "directly chosen by the people". That commandment has always been obeyed for lower house elections. However, for the upper house since 1984, senators have not been directly elected. They should be.

A sensible description of the current system is this: the people go to the polls and fill in ballot papers which are counted and the counts distribute numbers of party-machine appointments between the parties according to the concept of proportional representation.

The Xenophon party and the Greens want to keep it that way and entrench it by an unconstitutional and cynical fix. The Nationals want to keep the system as it is. It is now up to the Labor and Liberal parties (both of which have a vested interest in joining with Xenophon and the Greens) to decide whether to get some constitutional principles or whether to allow their greed to get the better of their common sense.

Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University's Canberra campus.

malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au