A legislative change made in 2016 may help remove power from political candidates threatening to disrupt democracy, writes Andrew P Street.
THERE ARE SHOCKINGLY few things one can point at as achievements from Malcolm Turnbull’s brief time as Prime Minister, even if his time in office seems now like a brief and refreshing moment of respite where we had a PM who believed that science was real and that government could do stuff other than act as a responsibility-deflecting shield between our leaders and the people.
Sure, there was the wonderful relief that was the passage of marriage equality — although the best that one could say for the hateful, hurtful process of the non-binding voluntary postal survey that wasn’t a plebiscite was that Turnbull at least enthusiastically backed the result and brought legislation to a vote in Parliament, which Tony Abbott would certainly have avoided doing.
(And just a reminder, because it’s never not worth remembering: when the vote was held, Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and Scott Morrison were among those who literally scurried out of the chamber rather than either oppose this legislation they supposedly had such deep personal opposition to, or follow the will of their electorates. Ah, what brave men of conviction.)
But there was one other significant legislative change that you could be forgiven for not having clocked at the time, because it was hurriedly passed in early March 2016 with the support of the Greens. And just might be the thing that saves Australia from a full-blown descent into lunacy after the 2022 Election result.
It is called the Commonwealth Electoral Reform Bill 2016 and it made Senate preference deals irrelevant by allowing you, the voter, to number the parties in order of your preference, much as we do in the House of Representatives.
Prior to 2016, Senate voting offered two choices: putting a one “above the line” with the party of your choice, or painstakingly numbering every single candidate running for the senate “below the line” from one to one-hundred-plus, in order of your preference.
Unsurprisingly, this meant that just about everyone did the single vote above the line instead of spending 20 minutes in the booth pondering which minor party was more offensively barking than another before realising that they’d marked two candidates as their 156th choice and had to start over and the democracy sausages were right there, man.
So, what would happen under the old system is that parties would cut binding but secret deals with one another where your #1 vote for, say, the Liberal Democrats would be excluded early (not receive enough votes to possibly get a quota) and then it would sluice to another party with whom the Liberal Democrats had forged an agreement — the Australian Sex Party, for example.
When they failed to get quota it would sluice to, say, Rise Up Australia, and then another party and another and another before finally all those excluded votes for dozens of minor parties would trickle together into enough of a quota for, just as an example, some barely-existing pretend pressure group with a name like the Motoring Enthusiasts Party.
And then you’d get a wave of articles about how some stunned-looking new senator was going to Canberra despite having received a handful of actual votes — as happened in 2013 when the Motoring Enthusiasts Party’s Ricky Muir unexpectedly became Victoria’s sixth Senator despite winning 0.52 per cent of the statewide vote, thereby robbing the Liberals of a third seat.
As that above sentence might indicate, it’s worth noting that this particular piece of legislation was passed not out of a passionate zeal by the Coalition to give voters control over the membership of the upper house so much as to make things slightly less chaotic for the double dissolution election Turnbull promptly called in May.
At the time, Labor was strongly opposed.
Labor Senator Penny Wong declared that:
“This is legislation about purging the Senate of minor parties and the Independents.”
Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm added:
“This dirty little deal could easily be called the get-rid-of-annoying-little-parties bill.”
And they were both absolutely right about the intent, but also it was hard to argue against giving voters control over whether or not their vote went to a party they’d never heard of because of a secret deal cut between party operatives.
Why is this important now? Glad you asked.
With up to a quarter of voters unhappy with the major parties, if we still had the old Senate system, we would be heading to an election where the Senate ballot would be the size of a bedsheet and most states would end up with a random minor party winning the sixth and last Senate seat not because they got the sixth-largest number of votes, but because they lucked out in the Pachinko game of preference deals.
And that would mean that the Senate crossbench would likely be a rabble of anti-vaccination, pro-QAnon conspiracy theory peddlers who received a negligible number of votes but could still hold governments to ransom. Like One Nation, but more so.
Now, with voters doing their own preferences, you determine exactly where your vote goes. And if your #1 preference is excluded early then your vote goes to #2 and then #3 and so on. Once that’s exhausted and none of your preferences win, then your vote is exhausted. It goes to no one. It means that to get the final Senate seat in Queensland, NSW or Victoria, a candidate will have to win hundreds of thousands of votes rather than dozens.
For my part, that 2016 legislative change will likely make the difference between a snake oil peddler like ex-Liberal-turned-UAP-leader Craig Kelly being a footnote to Australian political history instead of switching to the Senate and enjoying six years spruiking imaginary medical advice through the most powerful megaphone in the country.
And that’s reason enough to give Turnbull a grateful tip of the cap.
Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-based, Sydney-built journalist, author, editor and broadcaster and an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewPStreet.
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