Uncertain times in the Senate - Or have we seen it all before?
In a research paper titled “The Australian Senate” – prepared for a Parliament once more grappling with the perennial question - ‘what to do about the Senate?’ – the author quoted a political scientist who in 1949 observed that the Senate “enjoys little public interest and evokes no enthusiasm”.
In 2014 that does not seem to be the case. With the new Senate having taken their seats in Canberra’s Federal Parliament on 1 July this year, there has been what seems like endless discussion, debate and speculation about its likely future given the balance of power is held by a group of previously unknown Senators, including those representing the Palmer United Party.
The idea of a non-Government controlled Senate appears to be a new concept to some in the business of political commentary.
You would think after three years of a hung Parliament during the last Gillard/Rudd term that we’d be quite used to the fact that the government of the day must, at times, negotiate some of its more contested legislation. But no, it’s as if it has never happened before. There have been predictions of Tony Abbott calling for a double dissolution or even “a fresh Senate election” to rid the Senate of the imposters, restore it to its normal equilibrium and give the Government its rightful majority.
In its entire 13 years, the Hawke/Keating governments never at any time had control of the Senate – yet the legislative reform agenda that passed through it during that time was significant by any measure. In fact the last time a Labor Government had a majority in the Senate was 1950-51.
In 1993 two previously unknown Green Senators from WA, Christabel Chamarette and Dee Margetts held up John Dawkins’ mean-spirited budget for 64 days while they negotiated a series of trade-offs to ensure the budget was more socially equitable.
In 1999, after narrowly winning the previous year’s GST election, John Howard had a protracted negotiation with Democrats Leader Meg Lees to get the GST bills through the Senate. In return for support, she achieved a series of concessions, including the removal of the GST on fresh food.
More recently however the Coalition did gain control of the Senate.
After a stretch of some 24 years when neither the ALP nor Coalition either in government or opposition had held an absolute majority in the Senate, John Howard finally achieved it as a result of his sweeping 2004 election victory, which meant from 1 July 2005 until the calling of the election in 2007 he had absolute control of the Australian Parliament.
Ironically, as many have suggested, this was probably his downfall. The so-called “workplace reform” agenda he had cherished for so long and finally had the means and opportunity to deliver was the policy mistake that ended his long political career.
Since the current proportional voting system was introduced in 1949, governments have only had absolute majorities in the Senate for a total of 16 years. But somehow the wheels of successive governments and their legislative agendas have rolled on.
There’s no doubt, however, the last election threw up some unusual new characters and parties to grace the crossbenches of the Australian Senate.
Dominating this new group is the Palmer United Party (PUP), whose sudden appearance on the political scene has surprised even some of the more seasoned political commentators.
But it was no quirk of the electoral process that saw them gain one lower house seat and three Senate spots in the 2013 election. PUP Leader Clive Palmer ran a nationwide advertising campaign and ran candidates not only for the Senate, but also for lower house seats (presumably for the purpose of encouraging voters to vote for them in the Senate).
In a relatively short space of time his populist policies and delivery of simple messages generated interest and appeal to voters looking for an alternative to the major parties.
How the PUP Party will evolve and whether it will continue to grow or eventually fade into political obscurity is anyone’s guess.
Like the Hanson Party before it, PUP’s representatives come from vastly different policy places and seem only to share a disaffection with the major parties.
How long the glue that currently holds them together lasts is yet to be seen.
On the other hand, the election of single representatives from each of the Motoring Enthusiast Party, Family First and (nearly, but for the Senate re-run election in WA) the Australian Sports Party, and the Democratic Labour Party (2010 election) is a different matter.
These candidates gained their Senate spots with microscopic primary votes and a labyrinthine set of preference deals mostly unknown to voters.
This was highlighted in last year’s election by the appearance of the so-called “preference whisperer”, Glenn Druery, who had previously used preference harvesting to great effect in the 1999 NSW Upper House election which featured the famous tablecloth ballot paper and spurred the Parliament to make changes to the election process.
This is where it can be argued that changes need to be made to the Senate election process to ensure the manipulation of the result does not happen again.
The idea that the electoral system could be exploited to get Senators elected is not new.
Most famously, in 1937 when candidates for the Senate were not listed by Party affiliation or from a draw, but rather alphabetically, the Labor Party nominated the 'Four As' on its New South Wales Senate ticket - Armour, Armstrong, Arthur and Ashley – and they were elected, taking all four Senate spots up for election courtesy of the donkey vote and the preferential block voting system in force at that time.
Unsurprisingly, this was changed by Robert Menzies in 1940, but in the House of Representatives the practice of listing candidates alphabetically continued right up until 1983, as humorously described by Mungo McCallum:
“This led to many interesting battles of tactics between the Comms (Communist Party of Australia) and their arch-rivals the DLP (Democratic Labor Party), who were also keen to get their people at the head of the ticket. The Comms usually won, thanks to their recruitment of numerous members of the Aarons family: short of re-christening their own candidates something like Aardvark, there wasn’t much the DLP could do about it....2
So what sort of reform of Senate elections could realistically be contemplated? Because even if a genuine trigger existed, and Tony Abbott believed he would win the election, a double dissolution would most likely only lead to the election of more minor or micro party candidates. This is because the quota or threshold for a double dissolution is half that of a regular half Senate election.
Firstly, in order to curb the worst of the cynical preference dealing that was the hallmark of the last Senate election, an above the line preference system should be introduced as exists for the NSW Legislative Council.
This system puts the power back in the hands of voters who want to determine themselves where their preferences go, without having to number every single square (in the last election up to 110) and risk an informal vote. This also eliminates the shady preference deals between parties.
Second, consideration should be given to introduce an electoral threshold or minimum percentage of, say, 5 per cent as per the German system, whereby a candidate not reaching this threshold on first preference is immediately excluded from the count.
Lastly, the current system for the registration of political parties could be further tightened. In between the 2010 and 2013 elections, the number of registered political parties jumped from 25 to 54. Some measures to curb this could include increasing the number of members required for registration, requiring annual registration renewal and audits of membership databases and raising the primary vote percentage in order to receive public funding.
These sorts of changes would still allow for minor parties to be elected (as they still are in NSW), but would eliminate the worst and most cynical of the wheeling and dealing that has led to the current crop of micro parties determining the fate of critical legislation.
The final point to make is that apart from some of the more extreme examples (such as the Motoring Enthusiast Party and the Australian Sports Party) the electoral system alone doesn’t deliver a non-government controlled Senate. There has been at least one minor party or independent Senator elected in each Senate since 1955, and if voters truly believed the Senate was ungovernable without government majority, then why would periods of 24 years elapse without the situation being corrected, only to return to its previous state soon after?
It can be contended that Australian voters have been deliberately hedging their bets and ensuring a check on executive power for quite some time, forcing successive governments to negotiate and amend controversial legislation. But that would have to be the subject of an entirely separate article.
1Scott Bennett, The Australian Senate, Politics and Public Administration Group, Information and Research Services, Parliamentary Library, February 2004.
2 Mungo MacCallum, Mungo: The Man Who Laughs (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 2001), pp 64-65.
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