This upcoming federal election will be the tenth I’ve been involved in. As all these have been with a smaller party – either the Democrats or the Greens – and in all but the first I’ve been involved in one way or another with preferences decisions, I have a fair idea of how the current Senate system works, and why it is terribly broken and dangerously distorting for not just the voter but for every genuine political party – large, medium, and small – who currently have no choice but to engage with it.
The need to repair the existing Senate voting system has been acknowledged for a long time, and proposals on how best to do this were put forward by Labor, Greens and Liberal MPs nearly two years ago – as well as Senator Nick Xenophon, who proposed a slightly different proposal to fix the problem. Despite this, now that Senate voting reform laws have finally appeared, there has been a sudden torrent of mostly ridiculous and often contradictory arguments as to why such a change will be terrible. Many of these have involved assertion of so-called ‘facts’ which are verifiably wrong.
So I thought it would be worthwhile to correct some of these statements that are being made in an attempt to paint Senate voting reform as a terrible thing. I’ll start with Glenn Druery, seeing he is the person most identified as having gamed the current Senate voting system to manufacture distorted outcomes. He recently stated in evidence to a Parliamentary Committee that he has helped set up over forty political parties, many of which were created solely to harvest and exchange preferences between each other, and some of which carried names designed to attract voters of a certain political persuasion so that their preferences could be channeled to other parties of precisely the opposite political persuasion.
Following are some responses to incorrect statements he made in a recent interview on ABC’s Lateline. Given his own experience in these matters, I presume he is aware that a lot of what he is saying is simply wrong, but perhaps he’s just become another person who has been involved in politics so long that they can no longer remember which things they are saying are true and which things are the ones they would like to be true.
– Statement: The new laws will “wipe out the crossbench” and “wipe out the possibility of any new minor parties and independents coming through the ranks”.
He is certainly not the only person asserting this, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. Leaving aside the fact that the Greens still officially constitute part of the Senate crossbench, there is every possibility of other parties and independents – both current and new – getting elected to the Senate crossbench. If the new laws had been in place at the last election, there is no doubt at all that the new Palmer Party would have gained at least one seat (in Qld) and quite possibly WA and/or Tasmania as well. Brian Harradine and the Democrats both initially won Senate seats – across four elections – under a system without the Group Voting Ticket, which was introduced in 1984 and is the key difference between the current and proposed systems. The 14.8% vote that Nick Xenophon gained when he was first elected to the Senate in 2007 would also definitely seen him elected as an independent under the new system.
– Statement: (the current system) “is the very system that the Greens and Xenophon used to put themselves there in the first place”.
This is close to 100% wrong. Obviously as it is the system that was in place, by definition the only way to get elected was through that system. But the Group Voting Ticket feature of the Senate voting system – which is what Druery and others are trying to defend – was not the reason the Greens and Xenophon first got into the Senate. As stated above, Nick Xenophon first got elected to the Senate on a vote of nearly 15%, which guarantees a Senate seat under any of the voting systems used since proportional representation was first brought in in the late 1940s. It is true that Xenophon first got into the state Upper House in South Australia on a low primary vote of just 2.9% due to Group Voting Tickets (although they also have a lower quota for election of just 8.3% compared to the Senate’s 14.3%). But the key point in terms of the Senate is that he was able to build genuine electoral support, which as with Brian Harradine – another very successful Senate independent – is why he got elected to the Senate. The same option is open to any other independent who has genuine electoral support.
In regards to the Greens, the first person elected to the Senate as a Green was Jo Vallentine in Western Australia in 1990. At that election, the Greens candidate got 8.4% and the Democrat got 9.4%, with the Greens ending up getting elected on Labor and National Party preferences. It is hard to know for sure who would have won that seat under the proposed new rules, but the Greens certainly would have been in the running. In the 1993 election when another Green got elected in WA, the Greens vote was 5.6% and the Democrat vote was 4.0%, with their combined vote putting the Greens above the third Labor candidate and getting elected on their preferences. This would likely have also been the outcome under the new system. When Bob Brown first got elected to the Senate in 1996 from Tasmania, the Greens polled 8.7% and the Democrats Robert Bell polled 7.1%. This was a particularly fierce and sometimes bitter contest between those two people and their parties, but there is little doubt that under the new system Bob Brown would have won as well. As the two WA Greens Senate wins described above were subsequently both regained by the Democrats (before being lost again for good), this win of Bob Brown’s was particularly pivotal in the Greens ability to establish a beach head in the Senate – and Druery’s assertion that it was the nature of the current system that got them there is simply wrong. The only time where Druery’s comment comes even close to being true was when Kerry Nettle got elected for the Greens in New South Wales on just 4.3% of the vote, when the Democrats got 6.1%. But this was a case where the other one left when it was down to three parties in the final count was One Nation. As it turned out, they had put the Greens second last and the Democrats last – not because of any deal but just because someone had to go last. It pissed me off mightily at the time of course, but it was hardly the Greens fault. It is the nature of the system in place at the time – and in any case given the third Labor candidate (who was Warren Mundine, for trivia buffs) had a surplus of 5%, it is far from impossible that once other minor candidates had been excluded that Kerry Nettle could have got above this and then above the Democrats on a greater flow of Labor preferences and won the seat even from 4.3%.
– Statement: “the big difference, the big long-term difference is that the Labor Party will never again control the Senate in their own right.”
If it was possible to make a statement that is more than 100% wrong, this one would qualify. The Labor Party has NEVER controlled the Senate in their own right at any time since 1951 when the Senate was first composed of people elected entirely under a proportional representation system. As the Labor Party never controlled the Senate under the current system (or the one before that) and won’t control it under the new system, there is precisely zero difference in that regard. This is not the fault of the voting system, this is because the Labor Party’s primary vote has never been high enough consistently enough to enable this to happen. (As the system used to elect the Senate until the end of the 1940s would regularly produce results where one party would win all seats in a particular state – including the 1943 election where Labor won 19 seats out of 19 across the country – hopefully no one is proposing a move back to that system, although given some of bizarre and off the wall arguments used in an attempt to discredit the proposed new Senate voting system, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody did.).
– Statement: The Greens “used this system to put themselves there.”
As stated above, this is wrong. This system was in place when the Greens appeared as a political party, so by definition it was the only one they could get elected under. But as shown above, almost all the Greens Senate victories would have occurred under the new system as well. The new system will also now make it far more difficult for the Greens to win a Senate seat in the ACT – which was always a very tough ask, but was previously plausible if the Liberal vote dropped low enough, which on a few occasions it almost has.
– Statement: “The Greens used this system effectively to help wipe out the Democrats”.
As someone who for many years was extremely conscious of the threat the Greens used to pose to Democrat seats, I can intimately recall the dynamics of every single Greens versus Democrats Senate contest across every state ever since 1990. Obviously both parties sought to use the system to maximise our chances of winning, but that’s because everyone had no choice but to use the system that was there. But there were very few times that the Greens could be said to have won a Democrat seat on the basis of ‘using’ the system. I described above the New South Wales example from 2001 – which was the result of a ‘who to put last’ decision by someone from a third party, not due to any actions by the Greens. I could just as readily point to occasions where the Democrats managed to get seats the Greens would have won had preference decisions gone the other way, such as in WA in that same year 2001 the Democrats’ Andrew Murray was re-elected instead of the Greens’ Rachel Seiwert based on the decision by One Nation in that state to do the opposite of New South Wales and put the Greens below the Democrats. All the Democrats lost in the process of being wiped out – which was basically four in 2004 and the other four in 2007, not all of which went to the Greens in any case – was because the Democrats’ primary vote disintegrated, not because of the Greens use of the Senate voting system.
The only other possible case I could point to was the 1990 WA Senate contest, where the Greens won a seat from the Democrats. As I mentioned above, it is certainly plausible that the Greens could have won that under the new voting rules, but under the rules in place then the Greens won that one in large part due to the decision by Labor to put the Greens ahead of the Democrats in that state. But the Democrats won it back again in 1996 despite Labor again preferencing the Greens first, so it could hardly be said to have played any role in the Democrats’ demise. (Lovers of irony and alternative history scenarios might like the fact that this 1996 WA Senate decision by Labor was not entirely unlinked to a decision by the then Cheryl Kernot-led Democrats to put the Liberals ahead of Labor on their how to votes in Kim Beazley’s seat of Brand, which helped contribute to Beazley only hanging on to that seat by 0.2%. Who knows how Labor would have gone after the 1996 wipe out of the Keating government without Beazley to lead them, but within 18 months Cheryl Kernot joined the Beazley led Labor Party, which within twelve months came very close to winning government and making Kernot a Minister).
– Statement: “Lee Rhiannon from the Greens who was one of the big movers and shakers for these reforms was elected on about 2.6 per cent when she was first elected under a system very similar to this.”
This is a misleading and very selective use of facts. This refers to Lee Rhiannon being elected to the New South Wales Upper House, not the Senate. The quota there is only 4.5%, compared to 14.3% in the Senate. Under the current voting system used in the NSW Upper House – which is similar to that now proposed for the Senate, except with no requirement for preferences (which makes it a bit harder for smaller parties) – people can and have been elected on a lower vote than that.
Just to show how balanced I am, I will also point out the main very true thing that Glenn Druery also said in this interview, which is that if a double dissolution is held under the new Senate voting system it is more than possible that a number of people already on the crossbench could get re-elected; which rather blatantly shows that the assertion made by a range of people, including Glenn Druery in this same interview, that the new system will wipe out smaller parties is simply not true.
It is readily possible that current Senators such as Jacquie Lambie, Glenn Lazarus and Bob Day could get re-elected under the new voting system in a double dissolution. In Queensland, people like Clive Palmer – should he run for the Senate this time and spend even more of the money he should be using to pay his workers and creditors – and for that matter Pauline Hanson could also potentially win a seat given the lower 7.7% vote which is needed to win a seat in a double dissolution. If Ricky Muir turns out to be as popular as many people now assert, he also would have a better chance of getting back in. The point though is that if any or all these people were elected, it would be on the basis of votes and preferences directly chosen by the voter, not as a result of the shonky capturing and passing on of blocks of preferences by backroom operatives.