The Broken Senate and Tony Abbott’s ‘mandate’.

Well the election is over and four of the strangest years in Australia politics is now relegated to the dustbin of history. The unprecedented removal of a Prime Minister in their first term of office was the start of the downhill spiral. It was a harsh move, no doubt brought on by the difficulty that members of the Labor Government were having trying to work with Kevin Rudd, who by most accounts, doesn’t play well with other children and is not averse to throwing his toys out of the cot.

But the outrage at his removal also demonstrated that most Australians don’t understand how their own system of government works. It is not a presidential system. We don’t actually vote for a Prime Minister. In fact the term Prime Minister doesn’t even appear in the Australian Constitution. Not once. We vote for a party and the winning party’s leader becomes Prime Minister and that party can change leader if they want. It has happened many times before in Australia’s history.

But of course, of all this left a sour taste in the Australian public’s mouth. Julia Gillard was seen as an illegitimate Prime Minister, although this hadn’t happened when Keating took over from Hawke in similar circumstances. The popularity of Labor fell to the point where the election resulted in a hung parliament and previously unconsidered alliances had to be formed.

Abbott’s cry of “this parliament has no mandate” was a bit rich, considering that had more independents sided with him, he would have happily taking power and presumably believed he had a mandate. One of the compromises that had to be made to appease The Greens was the introduction of the carbon tax. (The politics of the carbon tax is a whole different post, coming soon.) Gillard’s statement prior to the election that she would not introduce a carbon tax was then interpreted as a lie. This was unfair, as the circumstances had changed and she had to move with them. To be a lie, and to legitimately call her a liar, she would have had to have been contemplating introducing a carbon tax before the election and telling the public otherwise. The fact that an ‘r’ could be conveniently attached to her name to make Ju-liar, didn’t help.

Prior to the last state election, Barry O’Farrell promised he would not introduce shooting in National Parks. When the Shooters and Fishers Party held the balance of power Barry had to roll over to their demands in over to get his electricity sales bill through the house. This is just as dramatic a turnaround, but Barry-liar doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily and Barry being the darling of the Sydney right-wing shock jocks was allowed to let this one go through to the keeper.

But what has all this got to with last Saturday’s election?

Well it was just a bit of history to show why Labor was so on the nose. But despite Julia Gillard and later Kevin Rudd being so unpopular, the Coalition (often called the No-alition due to their ceaseless negativity under Tony Abbott) weren’t fairing much better. Malcolm Turnbull was regularly polling the highest rating for preferred Prime Minister and he wasn’t even in the running. For both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, their disapproval ratings were higher than their approval ratings. This gave the Australian public the choice of shitty and shittier (you can decide which is which) and the choice was not much different when Kevin Rudd regained the Labor Party leadership.

So much of the election was thinking “Anyone but Labor”, but a sizable number of those were also thinking “As long as it’s not the Liberals under Tony Abbott.” And this bears itself out in the poll. Although the Liberals has won a landslide in the two-party preferred stakes, most of the swing away from Labor didn’t go to the Liberals. It went to other minor parties. Through the subsequent distribution of preferences the Liberals come out on top. Overall, almost 21% of the vote for the House of Representatives went to minor parties. The swing towards the Coalition was only 1.7%. The Palmer United Party secured 5.6% of the vote on its first time out, which is three times the number of votes in the swing to the Coalition. A swing of only 1.7% is not what I would call a clear mandate.

If you look at the Senate, it is a similar story. Up to 30% of the vote in the Senate was directed towards  minor parties. The proportional representation nature of the Senate means that this 30% means that more of the minor parties will get a seat. An additional 11 seats will go to the minor parties in the Senate and they will hold the balance of power.

The Senate has always been the ‘check and balance’ of the parliament. It is a place where the states get equal representation and minor voices get a say. The proliferation of minor parties in the new makeup means two things, firstly the Coalition can’t use the Senate as a rubber stamp to past through all of their policies and secondly, the negotiations to secure the votes of some of the minor parties may mean that the Coalition has to go back on some of the promises it made before the election. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

The abnormal result in the Senate has also called for reforms in the voting rules for the Senate. Ricky Muir in Victoria polled only 0.5% of the vote but looks likely to win a Senate seat after distribution of preferences. If this happens he will beat a Liberal candidate who polled 10% of the primary vote. This is because of all the other minor parties who preferenced the Motorsport Enthusiasts Party above the Liberals. This seems to confirm my theory of the electorate thinking “Anyone but Labor, as long as it’s not the Liberals under Tony Abbott.”

Whether or not the Senate really reflects the intent of the voting public is up to debate, but the mechanism of voting does have room for improvement. In the Senate you can vote “Above the line” or “Below the line”. If you vote above the line, you vote for the party you want and that party distribute the preferences. For example the Pirate Party had the Motoring Enthusiast Party as preference 29 with Labor at 34, the Nationals at 37 and Liberals at 39. All of these were lower than the “Coke in the Bubblers” party at 27. Very few people would have studied these preference sheets before voting.

Ideally people would vote using their own preferences rather than those of the party, but this means voting below the line. In NSW there were 110 candidate and the instruction to people was to “number the boxes 1 to 110 in order of your preference”. The reply to this from most people was  “Yeah, right!”. To be a formal vote they didn’t actually have to number 1 to 110, but they did have to number over 90% of the boxes. With only six seats up for grabs, this is a bit ridiculous. If the rules was changed so you only had to number, say, 12 (twice the number of seats available) then a lot more people would vote below the line. In the booth I worked  at, of the 473 votes cast, only 14 were below the line.

Another reform would be to have a minimum primary vote in order to pass through to the next stage. This would mean that the candidate at least had some support (albeit minor) in the electorate rather than simply being the least worst candidate for the majority.

Mr Abbott is already talking about such reforms. Although doing it so close to the election seems like sour grapes for not winning full control of the Senate, it is a change that must be made. When joke candidates make it into politics, politics becomes a joke.

This is not to say that all of the minor parties are jokes. The Pirate Party, quoted above had a comprehensive list of policies over a range of topics. The Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party policies mostly concentrated on aspects of road safety, which is primarily a state issue anyway. Its “core values” included statements such as “We take pride in our vehicles, pride in our Nation, and promote the notion of a “fair go for all””. Vehicles, nation, fair go. In that order. When someones thinks their car is more important that the future of their nation, they don’t deserve a seat in parliament. The best they should get is the opportunity to park their car at Parliament House as listen on their radio to the real representatives of the people during question time.

Tony Abbott is not a particularly good negotiator and it is not a strength of his leader in the Senate, Eric Abetz. Controlling the recently elected Senators will be akin to herding cats and it will be interesting to see how the government handles it. The new Senators with no electoral experience may well let power go to their heads and demand concessions to their pet hobby-horse to allow the government to pass more important legislation. Like the shooting in National Parks predicament in NSW, it will be interesting to see what laws pass that weren’t mentioned before the election, or even worse, policies promised against, that might now become law.

Before Tony Abbott can stop the boats, he might first have to stop the cars, or at least, the car enthusiasts. If a troublesome Senate doesn’t allow him to exercise his ‘mandate’ and he makes good his threat to call a double dissolution election, he’d better make sure that these reforms are in place first. When all Senate seats are up for grabs, it is even easier for minor parties to get a seat and he may end up with an even bigger group of cats to herd.


One Comment

  1. Nice work. Waleed Ali (spelling?) said in so many words on radio national that just because Tony Abbott is PM doesn’t mean that his personal mandate is any more legitimate than anybody of the other people elected to the parliament or the senate. I’ll go further and say that his position as PM means that his mandate, if any, needs to be sublimated in order to arrive at the decisions the government is there to make. Having said that, might I ask all members of both houses to cooperate fully with any legislation Mr Abbott might propose regarding the “boat people”, we don’t want to give him any excuses. Like they say, give the bastard enough rope, and he’ll hang himself.( Please do not take this proposal seriously.). Apart from anything else, Rudd introduced one of the finest pieces of Liberal policy ever formulated with the New Guniea solution, and I would be surprised if Tony could come up with one more dickish.
    LANGUAGE, HOMOPHOBIC STEREOTYPES AND ATROCIOUS PUN WARNING. The thing about a Man date is, odds are good the evening will conclude with someone taking it in the arse.

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