Senate Voting Reform: Part 3 – Is this the Greens’ “GST moment”? (hint: No. No it’s not.)

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.

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  1. I feel sad that a quirky electoral system which allowed people into office who seemed more truly independent has been trashed. I wonder, if these members had not been there, how much of Tony Abbott’s (and now Malcolm Turnball’s) agenda might have been passed by parties more interested in doing deals in the interest of the so-called smooth running of government. I think many establishment pollies truly misread or ignore the deep well of discontent and cynicism felt by many voters with the way the major parties and the minor parties like the Democrats (as with the GST) have enacted hurtful policies at their expense. In this context, this deal with the Greens to pass this legislation, perhaps for the best of reasons, smacks of more of the same old deal-making. This has done nothing to boost my confidence in the Greens or in any way reduce my own despair, anger and cynicism. What I think I valued most about the current set-up was the ability to hear the sound of free-speaking ‘individual’ voices who carried weight and ‘individuals’ better able to vote their conscience on important issues. It remains to be seen what the Greens will be like should they be able to get the additional seats they crave. More importantly, I wonder how well the needs of frustrated voters and citizens will be met under these ‘reforms’?

  2. The fundamental basis is that you and only you shuld decide where you vote ends up. If the AEC needs a computer and days to work out where your vote ends up, the system is flawed. How can a voter determine, under the existing rules, where their vote ends up.

    Imagine if I voted for someone that was for the safe schools program. That person didn’t get enough votes, but they preferenced someone else and then that person preferenced someone else that was against the safe schools program and gains a seat in parliament.

    I am not sure how that is democratic?

    The new laws make it easier for ME to choose where my senate vote ends up. That IS democracy!

  3. Andrew, the Micros got your Greens Party elected, all legal and above board .
    Why make out they did something wrong?
    Antony Green ABC political analyst admits they did no wrong as this twitter discussion shows .
    Why do you keep up the rubbish ?
    Antony Green ‏@AntonyGreenABC Mar 18

    @Biggy1883 @jamnic77 @Greens The Feeder parties were all organised by Glenn Druery and Peter Breen
    2 retweets 3 likes
    cornlegend ‏@cornlegend1 22h22 hours ago

    @AntonyGreenABC @Biggy1883 @jamnic77 @Greens Antony, tell me what they did wrong other than wisely use preferences
    1 retweet 1 like

    Antony Green Verified account

    @cornlegend1 @Biggy1883 @jamnic77 @Greens They did nothing wrong

    cornlegend ‏@cornlegend1 22h22 hours ago

    @AntonyGreenABC @Biggy1883 @jamnic77 @Greens Well, why the big song and dance ? they actually gave supporters of small parties a say

  4. Thanks for the comment cornlegend. If you could point to any comment of mine saying “the micros did something wrong”, I’d be happy to retract that comment. As with every other party, they have had to use the system that was in place.

    However, there is no doubt – not least because it has been publicly admitted – that a number of micro parties were created solely for the purposes of gaming the system by harvesting and trading preferences, and a number of people focused solely on this. Glenn Druery recently stated in evidence to a Parliamentary Committee that he has helped set up over forty political parties.

    One the many reasons why the Senate voting changes will be good is because it will help genuine micro parties who want to build public support for their policy platform a better chance, without having to compete with sham parties who stand for nothing other than preference harvesting.

    The sham parties did not “give supporters of small parties a say”, they distorted the system in a way as to subvert the votes of many people who voted for small parties & sought to scam supporters of small parties by setting up front parties who pretended to stand for something they didn’t.

    That is not meant to be an attack on every micro party. I am standing up for the rights of genuine small parties and enabling the m to operate in an environment free from the degrading distortions of front parties and their preference harvesting & trading agenda.

  5. I should also make clear that the statement by cornlegend that the “micros got the Green party elected” is not correct. I have refuted this furphy in a previous post here:

    Plenty of the fake micro parties set up by Mr Druery and co were set up at least in part explicitly to stop the Greens getting elected. People are obviously free to campaign against the Greens and try to run candidates against them, as I am sure Mr Druery will continue to do, and I am not suggesting any one did anything illegal. But the idea that the Greens only got elected because of the distortions of the Group Voting Tickets that have now been abolished is simply false.

  6. Those micro party independents earned their keep, now that is to be trashed as will Australia. Why.?
    The Greens actually triggered much of the political Drama by refusing to support an ETS, that killed off Rudd and lead to all the rest of the Turmoil and the rise of the rabid loony ultra right.
    Climate wise we are in more dangerous territory than most realise and the Greens by this action have ensured the situation will not improve. So what were their real priorities, the stated reason for the existence, the environment or political power. ?

    That is the question voters such as myself who had supported them are asking.
    Climate and environment wise we have far less time to make increasingly huge changes than we think.
    Watch what happens this year during the Northern Summer and the US elections

    You may wish to read this website especially the comments, by Robert Fanney, an emerging threats specialist and previous posts and comments

    P.S I had been a Democrat voter from the time Don Chip formed the party until Meg sold out their supporters. Their platform at that election was clearly stated as anti GST with no qualifiers.

    I agree it was a big mistake to have dumped Natasha, she was impressing me and I think I would have voted Dem next election

  7. Thanks Abel. I agree with your comment about Natasha.

    I recognise that many people feel at least some of the crop of micro-party Senators have done an OK job. If people feel they have “earned their keep” as you put it, then they can vote for them. That’s the whole idea of Senate voting reform – to ensure people get elected on the basis of decisions made by the voters, not political party operatives.

    As for the ETS, the Greens were successful in getting an immensely superior carbon pricing scheme in place compared to what was originally put forward by Kevin Rudd.

    And I really can’t see how the Greens can be blamed for Kevin Rudd’s mis-steps and all madness that followed.

  8. I have a few comments to make on this issue. I was an Australian Democrats member at the time and voted against supporting the GST, in a poll taken of Party members. But I was under the impression that the majority of Party members supported the modified GST proposals. The points I will make are:
    1. John Howard told the people that he would bring in a GST if voted back in, and the people voted him back in. The people spoke.
    2. The rot started in the Australian Democrats when the leader Cheryl Kernot defected, not when Meg Lees negotiated a more humane version of the GST. The Party’s final demise was the result of Natasha Stott-Despoja’s leadership.
    3. Labor used the GST to beat the Democrats around the head, just as they are doing to the Greens with the Senate voting legislation. Any time that a party sides with the LNP, no matter how compelling the reason, the Labor Party will attack it mercilessly. The Greens and the Democrats before them, take some of the votes that Labor thinks should be theirs. If they want those votes they should attract them by honest means, not by the current and past rotten means.
    4. The Left yelled and screamed about the Democrats passing the GST, but neither Labor nor the Greens have a policy of repealing the GST.
    5. The Labor Party is capable of extreme dishonesty and opportunism, as we see now with the Senate voting legislation. That is why a third force is needed in Australian politics.
    6. Labor opposed the Senate voting reforms because its leaders believed it would result in the LNP winning more Senate seats. The answer is for Labor to convince more people to vote for it, not to maintain the previous shonky voting system. It is up to you Bill Shorten, and your mates to perform better or find someone who can.

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