There is always a lot of griping about the undemocratic nature of the senate come election time from both the major political parties and the Canberra press gallery.
I dare say a lot of Cats would be open to abolishing the senate considering it a house of obstruction rather than review and against the spirit in which our framers of the constitution allegedly had in mind.
Such gripes always centres on myopic discussions (like everything else from the Canberra press gallery) about preference deals and the impact of people like Clive Palmer holding the balance of power.
The media and other “elite” opinion makers look down their noses at the likes of Clive or Pauline whom they they deem unworthy and unfit for public life apparently distinguishable from the stellar “quality” of Liberal, Labor, National and Green senators mostly considered beyond reproach.
A lot is made of the dark art of preference dealing and every election we see journalists frothing at the mouth attempting to create controversy in either total ignorance or total deception of the difference between political tactics and political endorsement in a preferential voting system.
In what is the epitome of fake news and political bias this non-story only ever focusses on Coalition preferences. Hence, if the Coalition preference United Australia or One Nation it is interpreted as an endorsement of “far right” bigotry.
When Labor preferences the Greens on the other hand, it is dismissed as purely tactical and not an endorsement of Green totalitarianism.
Not even the hypocrisy of Labor preferencing United Australia while simultaneously moralising that the Coalition mustn’t doesn’t change the narrative that Coalition preferences equate to endorsement whereas Labor preferences are simply election tactics.
When the Canberra press gallery bang on about about preferences what they are really doing is stating their own preference which is to say a preferred political narrative and a contempt for voters they deem too stupid to know the difference between tactics and endorsement.
Critics of the senate like to point to a motley crew of minor party and independent senators aggrandising themselves as an alternative to government and using the balance of power to impose their will, with little-to-no expertise or experience, and all in the grubby pursuit of populism.
Worse still they lament that we routinely end up electing obscure candidates on only a handful of primary votes (leaving aside inept party processes that fail to ensure constitutional eligibility). This is typically portrayed as a fault of the voting system rather than what it actually is which is largely a product of major party preference strategies.
If Liberal and Labor wanted to put a stop to this anomaly they could largely do so tomorrow by reaching an agreement on senate preferences. Instead, Liberal and Labor view elections in zero-sum terms and by hoping to deny the other side a senator they enable the election of fringe candidates.
In a country notable for duopolies in so many markets it is an appalling indictment on Liberal and Labor that they haven’t figured out how to better dominate the political market. This is probably a reflection of both parties having pretty much zero business experience within their parliamentary ranks. Not that I endorse duopolies.
If Liberal and Labor got together on senate preferences we would see pretty much the eradication of minor party and other independent fringe senators including most of the Greens.
Of course, for all the harping on about the senate from the media elites, one rarely comes across the same level of scorn and criticism of Green senators that they apply to say One Nation and who also owe their place in Australian politics largely as a consequence of preferences.
That said the election of minor parties and independents to the senate is not simply a quirk of preferences. It never occurs to elitist critics that voters are smarter than they credit and their voting patterns might just happen to represent a considered decision.
First of all the rise of independent and minor party senators is a largely a reflection of voter dissatisfaction with the major parties.
This dissatisfaction is obvious with neither party of government yet to hit over 40% of the primary vote despite being just 10 days out from the election.
This is a trend that has been two to three decades in the making. Major political parties are increasingly on the nose and in my opinion for good reason.
The political system is captured by an insiders class of staffers, unionists, and factional warlords with a heavy dose of political nepotism and cronysim thrown in for good measure.
Ordinary people no longer consider their political representatives as being “of the people, for the people” but rather part of the deep state swamp.
As stated above, Australian voters are not stupid. They know that under our voting system either Liberal or Labor will form government and there is nothing they can do about it.
However, what they can do is place limits on executive government by voting for an insurance policy in the senate. And this is what they have done.
Consider the 2016 Federal election. The Coalition secured 5,693,605 popular votes in the House of Representatives (42%) versus just 4,868,968 popular votes in the Senate (35.2%). That is a difference of nearly 825k votes.
The Labor Party was no better securing 4,702,296 popular votes in the House of Representatives (34.7%) versus just 4,123,153 popular votes in the Senate (29.8%). That is a difference of over 579k to the party that lost.
Combined we are talking about 1.4 million people that voted for a major party in the house of representatives but not the senate.
That is not an accident but a deliberate decision by voters reflecting a lack of confidence in whomever will form government. Voters are deliberately hoping to constrain their choice of executive government because they don’t have a a great deal of confidence in them.
Of course this insurance policy only works because of the way in which the major parties vote in the senate when in opposition. Opposition parties typically vote down government legislation regardless of whether the government has a “mandate” or not.
They invoke contested and confected notions of “mandate” to justify opposition at all costs and in the process elevate minor parties and independents as deal-makers who in turn proclaim their own special mandate as the price of legislative support.
Once a mandate becomes divorced from executive government it ceases to have any meaning and the parliament descends into what it has largely become, namely a place of dysfunction, chaos, bickering, and gridlock in which a popularly elected government cannot implement the policies it took to an election because of senate recalcitrance.
This should be food for thought for Morrison who in order to win must break the trend of voters drifting to minor parties and independents. So far the Coalition have built a campaign almost exclusively in opposition to Labor’s big tax and spend agenda and its un-costed climate policy.
To some extent it has worked with Newspoll showing a 49-51% TPP contest which is also within the margin of error. However the primary vote is stuck on 38% suggesting that swinging voters are still undecided and in the absence of change the 3 year trend to Labor will likely prevail.
While voters do not necessarily like (nor trust) Bill Shorten they look likely to hold their nose and vote for change in the House with an insurance policy in the Senate. Morrison needs to remove this as an option.
When John Hewson lost the “un-losable” election 1993 Paul Keating did exactly that. He turned defence into offence by stating that if the nation elected a Hewson government Labor would not get in the way of his GST “Fightback” mandate.
In Question Time, Paul Keating specifically stated “The Labor Party would not obstruct the passage of the GST legislation in the senate“. Why? Because he wanted it to be “totally clear that a vote for Hewson is a vote for the GST”.
Keating directly challenged voters that they would get what they voted for, and accordingly if they didn’t particularly like or understand the GST they had only one choice – vote Labor. And it worked.
In short, Keating took away the option of voting for change but with a Labor insurance / hedge policy in the senate. By respecting the mandate he changed the contest and in doing so he changed the political dynamic.
Morrison if he is to have any hope of winning must do the same. Scott Morrison must state for the record in the same emphatic language as Keating that the Coalition in opposition will respect the Shorten Labor mandate: a largely un-costed mandate that constitutes the most audacious far Left agenda in Australian political history.
He must make it totally clear that a vote for Shorten is a vote for a radical Left experiment on the economy and jobs, on energy and climate, on superannuation, savings and investment, on debt and deficit and that radical experiment will secure passage through the senate.
In one fell swoop you crystallise the contest by taking away the insurance / hedge and by disempower minor parties and independents.
More importantly this should not be simply campaign rhetoric but must be followed through in the event a Shorten Labor government is elected on May 18.
The best strategy for the Liberal Party in opposition is to ensure that Shorten fully owns the consequences of his own policies and the Liberal Party remains unsullied from the Shorten experiment. They need to given Shorten all the rope he needs to hang himself.
In doing so they achieve three things:
- They set up a falsifiable test of Shorten policies that his government alone will wear.
- They strip the minor parties and independents of all power and relevance diminishing their future appeal to voters.
- As a consequence of 2 they disempower GetUp! which will no longer be able to manipulate politics through faux independents.
In the long run this will only benefit a future Liberal government that for too long has ended up co-owning Labor-Green policy disasters.
In summary, Morrison must convert the undecided to not gamble on change by taking away the safety net of split ticket voting.
The message must be that a vote for Shorten is vote for the good, the bad and the ugly and split ticket voting won’t save you from the latter two.
As for those that would happily do away with the senate I simply say that there is a place for a chamber of review that done properly increases the accountability of government thereby improving both politics and policy-making.
Obstructing legislation simply allows governments to claim they would have been effective but were stymied by the senate. Blame is smeared.
Instead, opposition parties should use the senate not to obstruct legislation but establish benchmarks that validate or falsify the efficacy and intent of legislation that will ultimately hold the government to account come the next election.
Why be part of the problem (i.e. legislative gridlock) when you can highlight failure and present a solution?