I have read a range of comments by people asserting that the current controversy over the Greens support for repairing the Senate voting system will by the “Greens GST moment.” As I am well-qualified to say what a “GST moment” is like, I thought I’d explain why that is not even remotely close to what is happening now.
As a starting point, I’ll address comments about Senate Voting Reform contained in this recent ‘Views from the Street’ column in the Sydney Morning Herald. This column describes itself as a “snarky rant”, which in other circumstances would mean it would best be perused with a few grains of salt sprinkled on the tongue in one’s cheek. But given the buckets of bile being bellowed bombastically from all quarters at the moment over the alleged evils of Senate voting reform and all who support it, a snarky rant is a placid lake of measured rationality by comparison.
Under the heading ‘Lessons of History’, it repeats the suggestion that the Greens determination to take the opportunity to implement their own longstanding policy of repairing the Senate voting system equates to the Democrats decision in 1999 to support John Howard’s GST.
I was in the middle of that fateful decision by a majority of Democrat Senators to support the introduction of a GST. Out of all the Democrat Senators from that time, I am the only one who came out of the sad and smouldering ashes of the obliterated ruin and for someone thought ‘I think I’ll go join another progressive party and have another shot at challenging the 100 year hegemony of the two party monolith, because it was so much fun the first time around’. So I am highly sensitive to any possibility of ever experiencing anything which might be described as ‘the Greens GST moment’, as there is probably literally no one else on the planet keener than I am to avoid going through an experience such as that again or witnessing another mistake of that enormity.
But first a couple of corrections to the content of the ‘snarky rant’. Despite the column’s claim that “once (the GST) passed the party was dead in the water”, the Democrats still won four Senate seats at the following election in 2001. Of course it is reasonable to assume that this only happened because the party membership decided to remove Meg Lees as Leader and replace her with Natasha Stott Despoja, one of the two Democrat Senators, along with myself, who voted against the GST in the Senate (an action consistent with the fact that the majority of the party’s members opposed the GST deal). The ‘dead in the water’ bit actually coincided with when Natasha Stott Despoja was subsequently forced out of the leadership by a majority of her Parliamentary colleagues. (And as a free piece of genius advice for anyone anywhere ever who is thinking about trying to remove someone from a leadership position, it is probably a good idea to figure out beforehand who will put themselves forward to be a replacement.) But my point was even a decision as stupid and damaging as the GST one did not in itself destroy the Democrats capacity to win the same number of seats at the subsequent election as they had at the preceding one.
The column also seeks to draw comparisons to the Democrats deal on the GST by describing the Greens decision to vote for major legislation implementing an important part of their own policy as also being an “expedient deal that just so happens to benefit the conservative government of the day”. (For those who aren’t sure, ‘expedient’ means ‘convenient but possibly improper/immoral’). As I wrote in a previous post, this current political situation and its timing is exceedingly inconvenient for the Greens. As it is the party’s longstanding policy it is also hard to see how it could be improper. But whilst the timing is inconvenient, it is none the less the only time the chance has arisen to make this major democratic reform in the twenty years since the party first called for it, so it is basically now or never in regards to taking the opportunity. As has also been noted elsewhere, there is no particular reason why these reforms will benefit the conservatives into the future either. The new Senate voting reforms will advantage those parties – of whatever philosophical persuasion – that gain genuine public support from voters above those parties that don’t – which is rather the point of having elections in the first place I would have thought.
But back to the overarching suggestion that this may be the Greens ‘GST moment’. It may be that the relentless, well orchestrated attacks currently targeted at the Greens do cause some political damage to the Greens. Self-evidently, that is the intent of those conducting the attacks. We will see what happens on that front, but I think the suggestion (and no doubt fervent hope of some) that it will somehow lead to the Greens experiencing a Democrat-like demise is highly improbable, as I believe there are two key differences.
Firstly, whilst there are certainly large volumes of vomit being disgorged in the Greens direction from a variety of origins at the moment, it still really is a spring shower compared with the tidal wave of public abuse that instantaneously descended on the Democrats when they agreed to support the GST – and there was no Twitter or Facebook in those days to further magnify and multiply such responses. The anger and outrage on the GST was genuine, organic, immediate and direct from the public and based to at least a reasonable extent on widely available facts. Compare that to the complaints on Senate voting reform, which are derived from partisan-powered misinformation manufactured and orchestrated from a range of sources that are clear to everyone (as should be their motivations), are mostly focused on issues which actually have nothing to do with Senate voting reform and involving criticisms which have a tenuous relationship with truth, to put it mildly. I emphasise that many of those criticising the Greens in the current context do so from the basis of genuine concern, but none the less those concerns have been based largely on a torrent of exaggerations, highly selective interpretations, misinformation, distortions and flat out falsehoods that have been pumped into progressive networks over recent times .
Secondly, while some of the amendments the Democrats negotiated with John Howard before agreeing to the GST deal were in accordance with previous statements by the party about what sort of changes were needed to make the GST fairer, it was never actually party policy to support or work towards implementing a GST. At best, the party’s position was to consider GST legislation if it was put forward by the government of the day and decide whether it might be bearable if a very large number of amendments were made to it. The GST was the major political issue of the day over a very long period of time, and the centrepiece of the 1998 election. Pretty much everyone in the electorate had a view on it. When GST legislation was put forward, it was the subject of four – yes four – separate Senate Committee inquiries run in parallel, which spent a number of months going around the country pointing out all the things that were wrong with it, all the while assuming the government would make some sort of deal with independent Senator Brian Harradine (who held the balance of power at the time) – whereupon everyone would say how crap his deal was and the GST never should have been passed. Instead, he rather famously said “I cannot”. Within three weeks, Meg Lees said “I can”- and cue above mentioned tidal wave.
By contrast, the Greens desire for major improvement of the Senate voting system has been expressed consistently for over twenty years, and has been growing in detail and priority in the last ten years. It had gained sufficient importance to the party that a commitment to its implementation was specified in the agreement the party struck with Julia Gillard in exchange for supporting her forming government in 2010. Whilst Senate voting reform has long been called for by pretty much anybody who understands voting systems and values an effective democracy, it has not been a major political issue in the minds of the public. Also unlike the GST, it was never a significant point of difference between the main political parties. As has been repeatedly pointed out, the Parliamentary Committee that examined the issue in detail after the last election came to a unanimous position supported by Labor, Liberal and Greens. The difference with the GST could not be more stark. Even though the Independent Senator Nick Xenophon – today’s equivalent of Brian Harradine in some respects – came up with a slightly different solution, he also supported the core component of reforming Senate voting laws, which was to scrap the abomination of Group Voting Tickets which allows shonks and shysters to harvest and cross-trade preferences via an ever more complex web of backroom deals.
So to compare and contrast, the Greens approach on Senate voting reform:
• Implements a long-standing policy of the party in a pivotal policy area
• Is strongly supported by the party’s membership
• Has long been supported by close to every non-aligned advocate in the field
• Would clearly benefit the entire community through a far more accountable and fair electoral system
• Is consistent with the unanimous findings of a comprehensive Parliamentary Committee inquiry process and
• Was (up until almost the moment legislation finally appeared) supported by both Labor and Liberal parties
This is a very far cry from the Democrats’ support for the GST, which involved supporting something which was:
• Not party policy and had never been a stated goal of the party
• Opposed by the majority of the party’s own members
• Ferociously opposed by many organisations from the party’s most supportive constituencies
• Widely criticised on multiple fronts throughout a comprehensive process of Parliamentary Committee inquiries
• Clearly and very publicly found through those inquiry processes to cause disadvantage to significant sections of the community unless major amendments were made
• Never ever something which came even remotely close to having bi-partisan support
Of course, both ending up involving lots of shouts of outrage from the Labor Party and accusations of getting into bed with the Liberals – so I suppose that’s similarity.