Reflections on the Senate Election. Guest blogger: David Combe

David Combe was National Secretary of the ALP, 1973 to 1981

As the composition of the new Senate which will sit from July 1, 2014, becomes clearer, my mind goes back to two earlier Senates which took office 40 and 30 years earlier, and which were elected in double dissolutions of the Parliament.

The election of May 18, 1974 is mainly remembered because it made Gough Whitlam the first Federal Labor Leader to take the party to victory at successive elections. At the time, our joy was tempered by the narrowness of the majority achieved in the House of Representatives (just 5), but in reality there had been very little slippage in the vote for the Government. (It is seldom remembered that despite everything which the party had going for it when it won its first Government in 23 years at the election of December 2, 1972, the House of Representatives majority – only 9 – was much smaller than might have been expected).

Few people, however, recall that at that election for all Members and Senators, the Whitlam-led ALP completely wiped out the scourge of the DLP which lost all of its 5 Senate seats, and which had kept Labor from office at so many elections in the ’50s and ’60s. In doing so, Whitlam had ended the profound power of the man Tony Abbott acknowledges as one of the two major political influences upon him – B.A. Santamaria.  (The other, of course, is John Howard of whom Abbott once said “My greatest wish is that I could be half the man John Howard is; then I would be twice the man I am”).   Without the presence of the DLP, the composition of that 1974 Senate was ALP 29, Coalition 29, and Others 2. In the joint sitting of both Houses which followed the election, PM Whitlam was able to pass the legislation, including that for Medibank, which the previous Senate had twice rejected. With a Senate such as that elected a few weeks ago, a Government clearly elected, but with a small majority, might be unable to gain passage at a Joint Sitting for legislation endorsed by the voters at a double dissolution.

Fast forward 10 years.  The double dissolution called by Bob Hawke at the height of his popularity was the first held under reforms of the electoral system which included public funding, an enlarged House of Representatives and Senate and, most significantly as it has turned out, the above-the-line Senate ballot paper allowing voters to complete just one box and thereby leaving the distribution of his/her preferences to the Party (or Group) which had received the first preference vote. The claimed rationale was to reduce informal votes for the Senate, but I am sure that those who negotiated the changes between the major parties had not overlooked the lure of more primary votes, and therefore more public funding, going their way.

Since 1984 I have always remembered how appalled I was to find that ALP preferences in New South Wales where I voted had put into the Senate a Liberal instead of Peter Garrett at a time when he was a widely recognised advocate and articulate voice for environmental, privacy and other leftist causes, and who narrowly missed out on election as a Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate. As a consequence, I resolved never again to allow anybody from “Sussex Street” or any other party to choose my preferences. So I have become one of those annoying folk who hold up other voters on Election Day by assiduously filling out all boxes below the line, and then checking that no mistake has been made. Accordingly, on September 7, I numbered 110 boxes backwards eliminating in rough order those I most did NOT want to accidentally benefit from my vote.

As we now look at what has proven to be a disastrous system giving us in our Senate a procession of accidental ‘oncers’ elected through deals allowing them to win election with a minuscule percentage of the primary vote, we need to ask some serious questions……

1. What were the true motives of those who negotiated the original changes back in 1984? A cynic could be forgiven for thinking that one was the prospect of dividing up the Senate between both sides of politics, and providing a repository (or should I make that ‘depositary’?) for officials and others whom the factions controlling the parties need to ‘reward’ or want to move out. Certainly I do not see equivalents of Gareth Evans or Lionel Murphy emerging through the system on the Labor side, and it was a joke to realise that the obviously very talented and worthy Arthur Sinodinos was so low on the Coalition ticket in NSW as to be at serious risk of missing out.

2. Was another incentive the extra public funding which was expected to flow from the carve-up between the major parties referred to above? If so, it has clearly failed. The system has become a potential lottery win for small groups. In NSW, the Liberal Democrats (whoever they are) by drawing first place on the NSW Senate ballot paper, and registering a name which apparently confused Liberal voters who did not bother to follow the how to vote card of the party they intended to support, will receive almost $2.50 for each of the almost 500,000 primary votes they recorded. No doubt this will more than adequately compensate them for the invisible campaign they had to fund. Most of this, presumably, should be going to the Liberal Party. And in my old state, South Australia, the ALP will have less funding from the Senate result than Nick Xenophon’s Anti-Pokies crusade.

3. Will the Abbott (or some future) Government face the prospect of having to make a choice between giving up on legislation for which it has a very clear mandate because it cannot get it through the Senate, or running the very risky gamble of a double dissolution (and lower Senate quotas) at which it might face an even more unpredictable Senate which makes a joint sitting perilous?

4. Can we really say that a ‘preferential’ system which allows genuinely “faceless” men and women to determine where preferences flow is any more a democratic expression of the people’s will than the so-called elections we so readily criticise in autocracies?

Everybody except, probably, the direct beneficiaries of the present system, advocate change. Minds better-informed and sharper than mine will address what that change should be. However, at least two necessary components to a simplification of the system occur to me.

First, our funding system sets a minimum first preference vote requirement of 4% as the basis for ANY payment of the current $2.488 per Senate vote. Surely that same 4% is a fair minimum requirement for a group to remain in the count. For example, the German elections of a few days ago resulted in Chancellor Angela Merkel a doing so well that her traditional coalition partner, the Free Democrats, failed to secure 5% of the vote and were therefore denied any representation. The German lower house, too, is elected on a Proportional Representation system.  A 4% minimum requirement would eliminate many minor groups from running without denying the rights of genuine minor parties and independents offer themselves for election. After all, serious one state only candidate such as Nick Xenophon in South Australia will always poll well north of that 4% – as did Brian Harradine in Tasmania for many years

Secondly, as a minimum to ensuring that voters express a genuine preference, surely it is reasonable that all boxes above the line be numbered in order of preference. After all, a 4% minimum threshold for survival should significantly reduce the size of Senate ballot papers. Of course most voters will follow the preferences shown on the how to vote cards of the parties they support, but at least the parties themselves would have to be transparent about their preference recommendations and publicly accountable for justifying  those recommendations.

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