An article by leading election expert, visiting Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and 3 Million Voices Chairman,
Malcolm Mackerras AO.
Supporters of the Liberal Party of Australia – you must be very disappointed by the outcome in the Federal Parliament on your so-called “Senate reform”. Were there to have been any of you who may have imagined the Liberal Party to be possessed of any principles in matters electoral those members would have now resigned in the wake of the party’s recent piece of pragmatism pandering to the powerful.
THREE CONSPIRATORS AND A FOUR PARTY STITCH UP
The three co-conspirators in this four-party stitch-up can make some claims on their own behalf.
The Greens can say these Senate changes are in accordance with the principles they have espoused since 2004. They can also claim their views are consistent with the world-wide Green view of democracy.
Senator Nick Xenophon can claim he will make decent gains in numbers of senators under a system truly rigged in his favour.
The Nationals can claim they will be able to continue contesting Senate elections in Western Australia – for the time being. That was the important concession they were able to wring from the Liberal Party. See my further comment below.
The Liberals, meanwhile, are left with crumbs from the Xenophon-Greens table – probably an early double dissolution election on July 2 and, perhaps, one more senator.
But, of course, that is what Malcolm Turnbull wants. So Turnbull has a quick win but the Liberal Party loses over the longer term to the Greens.
The Labor Party can claim to have returned to principle. It can also claim it has put the national interest ahead of its own electoral interests. Labor’s only problem now is how best to explain why it was tempted to stray from the straight and narrow path over the past two years when it wandered on the low moral ground with the Liberals and the Greens.
Meanwhile the trade union movement is delighted with Labor and disgusted with the Greens. Rightly so!
The Constitutional principles at risk
The Proportional Representation Society of Australia (PRSA) and I are the only people in the country who have put principle first. Our principles are the democratic values of the Australian Constitution.
Section 7 commands: “The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting as one electorate.”
Section 24 commands: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth. . .”
Those are our principles – “directly chosen by the people” being the rule for all our federal politicians, except for senators filling casual vacancies.
(If I may divert myself I should say that I am starting to wonder whether in 1977 I should have supported the amendment to section 15 dealing with Senate casual vacancies. Perhaps historians will see that change as the thin end of the wedge for a situation whereby all senators are – de facto – appointed by party machines.)
Our Constitution’s principles tell us that all our federal politicians must be elected in a CANDIDATE-BASED electoral system.
Labor can still claim to stand by those principles: the Liberal Party cannot. It is now about to face a serious High Court challenge. Being part of that challenge myself I know it is serious and with a very reasonable chance of success, whatever Anne Twomey and George Williams may say.
Effectively the Liberal Party will ask this of the Court: to repeal (de facto) the words “directly chosen by the people” in section 7 while leaving them still in place in section 24.
I refuse to believe the Court would do that. It would be cherry-picking of the worst kind.
Those words are convenient to the two big parties (Labor and Liberal) for the House of Representatives, due to its single member constituency basis for election. They are inconvenient to them for the Senate because six or twelve senators are elected for states voting as one electorate.
Labor has (at last!) chosen principle, the Liberals the convenience of their own machine.
There are so many things wrong with this newly-legislated system I lack the space to give details. However, it is easy to find the one and only good thing about it. There would be a reasonable option given to electors to vote below the line.
For me, therefore, the role of the High Court is an easy one: strike down the above-the-line changes as being unconstitutional but leave all other details in place as the Parliament has passed them.
What do good democratic principles look like?
When it comes to proportional representation in Australia there is one system generally agreed to be very good, Tasmania’s Hare-Clark system, in successful operation there since 1909.
A Hare-Clark supporter like me (and the PRSA) has no difficulty in explaining the Tasmanian system (also operating in inferior form in the ACT) in its EVERY DETAIL as being constructed according to good democratic principles.
Fortunately for me I chose to oppose this new Senate system from the very beginning. It means I shall not need to describe its details dishonestly. Unfortunately for its supporters that is exactly what they will need to do.
Take, for example, an agreed fact. This system is 90 per cent the same as the system recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in May 2014.
So what explains the 10 per cent difference? Supporters will tell you those differences make the system more democratic.
Rubbish! Those supporters must surely know that the JSCEM proposal did not have the numbers to get it through the Senate.
The 10 per cent difference was, pure and simple, the means to get the Nationals on board. See my earlier comment.
A decent system such as Hare-Clark is based on democratic principle. After that it is a case of “Let the chips fall where they may”.
An example of an honest ballot paper
So let me describe the ballot paper for Bass in 2014 where five members of the Tasmanian House of Assembly were elected.
Above the 22 candidates it reads: “Number the boxes from 1 to 22 in order of your choice”. Below the candidates it reads: “Your vote will not count unless you number at least 5 boxes.”
That is an honest ballot paper and is in striking contrast with this new Senate ballot paper where both above-the-line and below-the-line instructions are dishonest and will confuse voters.
An honest ballot paper does not rely on so-called “savings” provisions as is the case with the legislated new Senate system. Thus, when the instruction for the below-the-line vote reads: “Number the boxes from 1 to at least 12” the deceit is clear to me, but probably not to the average voter. Like that Bass ballot paper (see above) it should read: “Your vote will not count unless you number at least 6 boxes”, six being the number of senators to be elected.
Read more and sign the petition – [HERE]