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Malcolm Mackerras
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Soft-as-soap Brexit on the cards?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

By Malcolm Mackerras

This article is, in effect, an update to three articles I have had published on this website. The first was titled: “What do the Americans and the Liberal Party have in common?” published on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. Its opening lines were: “Winston Churchill once famously remarked that ‘the Americans can always be relied upon to do the right thing – but only after they have exhausted every alternative.’ If you read on, you will see the relevance of that remark to Australian politics. 

The second was “Brexit and The Donald: both big mistakes?” published on Thursday, November 17, 2016. Its opening sentence was: “Both Brexit in June and Donald Trump’s victory in November were mistakes by the British and American people, respectively.” The third was “Theresa May: The first great British PM of the 21st century? published on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.

My update is to say that I am still very proud of the first two articles but I now regret having written the third. It started off well enough, but its later part lapsed into poor judgment. How could I have overestimated May so badly? My first (essentially minor) mistake was to think that opinion polls one month out from polling day would translate, roughly speaking, into votes on polling day.

My more serious mistake was this: I had far too many conversations with British commentators. They persuaded me of something which was quite contrary to my Australian instincts. My view had been that the whole idea behind the Brexit referendum was obviously such a disaster, its 52-48 vote for Brexit surely must never prevail. They persuaded me otherwise: it was a respectable vote from the people. Much as I thought the whole Brexit idea to be both mad and bad, the voice of the people must be respected, they averred.

On Monday, Paul Kelly in The Australian had published an article which was up to his usual high standard but it included this sentence towards its end: “It is wrong to see the British election as a repudiation of the 52-48 Brexit vote at the referendum yet it is idle to deny the manifest elements of such sentiment, notably in the pro-EU stance of the youth vote that turned out in force against May this time, having failed last year to appear at the referendum ballot box.” Sorry Paul, your main contention is wrong. History will record that this general election result WAS a repudiation of that referendum.

The next two sentences from Kelly were: “It is still most unlikely the Brexit decision will be reversed. That could only come with a new government and a new referendum result.” Sorry Paul, you are wrong again. There will be no new referendum to be sure. That apparent Brexit decision, however, has already been reversed without the need for another referendum.

Australia and the United Kingdom have one thing in common. They both do general elections for their national lower houses very well indeed. Their systems differ in that the British are lucky enough not to have a Senate. (For details on that proposition, however, see several of my articles on this website.) They differ in a much more important respect. We in Australia know how to do referendums, which we do very well. On the rare occasions that the British do referendums, they do them very badly.

Referendums are an important part of the Australian Constitution. We have had 44 of them and in every case, the result was the right one. There are, however, two interesting details to note. The first is to record the affirmative vote in the eight successful referendums. It ranged from a high of 90.8% to a low of 54.4%. The checks and balances of our Constitution would never allow a miserable 51.9% Brexit-style affirmative vote to insert a bad change into our Constitution. 

The second detail is to note is that five bad changes have been rejected, notwithstanding getting a majority nation-wide affirmative vote. Furthermore, it is universally acknowledged that if the British had been lucky enough to have our compulsory vote (at elections and referendums), their nation-wide vote would have been to remain in the EU. The young would have voted at the Brexit referendum and the British people would have been seen to reject Brexit in 2016, saving all the trauma which they have suffered as a consequence of the mistaken decision to have such a flawed referendum.

So, who should the Conservative Party blame for its current predicament? The answer I give is that the men are to blame, not May who simply volunteered to take David Cameron’s job when he retired. It should be noted also, that she won the job in a genuine democratic vote among the Conservative rank and file. Unlike Malcolm Turnbull, she did not snatch the job from another PM in a party coup. When I say “the men”, I mean Cameron, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox. They have a lot to answer for.

Readers may wonder why I am so proud of my first article cited above. The answer is that it enables me to coin a new quip. “British politicians can always be relied upon to do the right thing – but only after they have exhausted every alternative.” I predict within two years I shall be saying that. Having tried every alternative to doing the right thing they will come to their senses, accept a purely nominal, soft-as-soap, Brexit which will be humiliating for them but good for the country as a whole.

Finally, I still think Jeremy Corbyn to be unelectable. I predict that he will follow the career of a former leader of the Australian Labor Party, Arthur Calwell, who was Leader of the Opposition for nearly seven years from 1960 to 1967. I remember well that when the caucus chose him in March 1960, he was thought to be unelectable. However, for a few months from very late 1961 through much of 1962, many people revised their opinion. He never became Prime Minister of Australia.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

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Theresa May: The first great British PM of the 21st century?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

By Malcolm Mackerras

In my article here on March 28 (“Lessons for SA from WA election”) I made a detour into American history and pronounced the “great” presidents of the 20th century to have been (in this order) Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and Woodrow Wilson. In quite a different place, I have pronounced the “great” Australian prime ministers to have been (in this order) Bob Menzies, John Curtin, Alfred Deakin, Andrew Fisher, Bob Hawke, Billy Hughes and John Howard.

Being interested in these things, I was wondering at one stage how British historians would rank their 20th century prime ministers. I found the answer easily. On a visit to London in 2015, I learnt something as a mere tourist by going to the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. I noticed at a place just outside the House of Commons chamber, the statues of all the prime ministers of the 20th century. Yet one thing that interested me was that the statues were not of the same size. Four were much bigger than the others. The four of standout size were those of David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. Here, surely, was an official statement. The “great” British prime ministers of the 20th century were Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher.

So let me speculate about the 21st century. In chronological order, the first “great” British prime minister will be Theresa May. She was born in 1956 as the daughter of a clergyman. She became the Conservative member for Maidenhead in 1997, which was the year of the great landslide to Labour under Tony Blair. The Maidenhead constituency is west of London and has the Thames River as its northern border. It is prosperous but has one problem. The locals complain at times about excessive aircraft noise from Heathrow Airport.

When David Cameron became prime minister in the Conservative/Liberal Democratic Coalition government in 2010, May became the Home Secretary. The general consensus of pundit opinion was to describe her as the “token woman” in the Cabinet. However, she became noted for her tough-minded approach to the job and events turned out with an unexpected twist. David Cameron caused to be held a referendum in June 2016 at which, by a 52% to 48% margin, the British people decided to leave the European Union, the so-called “Brexit”. Cameron resigned and May became prime minister on July 14, 2016.

I now come forward to July 2024. May marks the eighth anniversary of her tenure of the office of prime minister by retiring on her own terms. She had become the senior leader of government in Europe and her retirement made the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the senior leader for the foreseeable future. Here is now a description of May’s leadership of the United Kingdom, which leadership historians think entitles her to be described as the century’s first “great” prime minister.

Cameron won a general election for the Conservative Party on May 7, 2015. The result in seats for the 650-member House of Commons was 330 for the Conservatives, 232 for Labour, 56 for the Scottish National Party, 8 for the Liberal Democrats and 24 for the combination of all the rest. However, due to the fact that several republican members from Northern Ireland refused to attend, that was generally described as a 17-seat majority for Cameron and May.

In allowing the British people to express their will on Brexit, pundits thought Cameron made a terrible political mistake. When the vote went against him, he had to resign. May seamlessly became prime minister, an unexpected, accidental, indeed “fluke” holder of the office. Yet, May proved that such a person sometimes ends up being described as “great” where the man long predicted to be prime minister sometimes turns out to be such a ditherer he ends up being described as a “failure”. Mind you, May had a great advantage over possible Conservative rivals. For a long time known as a “Eurosceptic” she was, nevertheless, loyal to Cameron and voted to “Remain”.

Her Euroscepticism did not disappoint. Contrary to all expectations (including those created by herself) she called an early election for June 8, 2017 at which Cameron’s ten-seat majority was increased to a hundred seats. The numbers were 375 for the Conservatives, 175 for Labour, 52 for the SNP, 25 for the Liberal Democrats and 23 for the combination of all the rest.

May’s full term from June 2017 to June 2022 was lauded by historians. She had placed the United Kingdom in a strong bargaining position by holding her first election to her own timetable. The result of the election gave general strength to her position. The consequence was that Brexit was far more successful than had been expected. Thus the British people in June 2022 gave her party a third consecutive win with another absolute majority in seats. (It was, of course, the fourth consecutive win, 2010 having been, in truth, a Conservative win.)

May’s tenure was noted for two other achievements. The first was to keep the United Kingdom together, no mean feat in the circumstances. The second was to realise a long-held Conservative dream of reducing the size of the House of Commons to “a mere” 600 members. Consequently, under new maps in 2022 the distribution of seats was 502 for England, 52 for Scotland, 30 for Wales and 16 for Northern Ireland.

In 2010, 2015 and 2017, the distribution of seats was (is) 533 for England, 59 for Scotland, 40 for Wales and 18 for Northern Ireland.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

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Will Family First retain its Senate seat?

Friday, April 07, 2017

By Malcolm Mackerras

Back on November 7, I had posted on this website an article titled: “What will happen to Bob Day’s vacant Senate seat?” In that article, I expressed, yet again, my admiration for Bob and my sorrow at the fate which had befallen him.

Perhaps more important, however, was my expression of a reasonable degree of confidence that Family First would retain the seat. My logic was that if the High Court had decided his election were valid then Family First would simply APPOINT a successor. However, if the Court made the other decision, then there was a reasonable degree of probability that the seat would be filled by Kenyan-born Lucy Gichuhi, who was his second candidate at the July 2 Senate general election. I did mention the possibility that the seat would be filled by Labor’s Anne McEwen, who had been a South Australian senator from July 2015 to the dissolution in May 2016.

However, I DID predict Gichuhi would become a senator. We now know what will happen in the sense that we know there WILL be a re-count of the Senate general election votes, with Day’s name excluded and his preferences distributed between all the other candidates on the ballot paper. In that article, I made a note to the effect that a mathematician by the name of Grahame Bowland had done a simulation of the July votes as though Day’s name had been removed. He came up with the calculation of 69,442 votes for Gichuhi and 65,841 for McEwen.

Consequently, I have had another look at that simulation. I stick with my prediction by saying there are three chances in four the seat will go to Gichuhi and one chance in four it will go to McEwen. It all depends on those below-the-line votes from which Day benefitted.

It would be a disaster for Malcolm Turnbull if McEwen were elected. It would mean that a seat voters intended to go to the right of politics ended up filled by a senator from the left. I hope it is Gichuhi, but if it is McEwen, I would probably be accused of schadenfreude. The truth is that in several of my articles on this website I warned Turnbull against the particular type of Senate reform he decided to implement. As a consequence of that warning, I also warned him not to double dissolve the Parliament. Certainly, I was not aware that this particular situation would arise but I continue to insist that Turnbull made a bad error by ignoring my advice.

I do, however, give him this advice now. My plan for a DECENT Senate reform is still on the table. All he needs to do is read my 49-page submission to the federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It is number 139 and was posted on Friday February 17 on the website of the Committee. I have subsequently sent them a supplementary submission which awaits the approval of the Committee for it to be posted. One of the things I do in that supplementary submission is record in full my article titled: “My take on the new Senate voting system”. It was posted here on Monday February 27 and should be read by every member of the Commonwealth Parliament.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

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Lessons for SA from WA election

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“Electoral history is littered with unexpected landslides”. That is the favourite saying of my friend Sir David Butler. During the period when I was described as “Australia’s leading psephologist” (from about 1968 to about 2008) he was described as “Britain’s leading psephologist”. However, he enjoyed that description for much longer than I did. Indeed he assisted in coining that new-fangled word “psephology” which means the study of elections, election trends and electoral systems.

Anyway, the reason for his coining of such a dictum was his experience. Because no one ever REALLY knows the result of an election in advance pundits tend often to say: “It will be close”. For my part I can think of quite a number of cases where the expected winner DID win but the victory was significantly bigger than anyone expected. The British general election of 1945 is the first example. There was a general feeling that Labour would probably win but no expectation of the landslide defeat for Winston Churchill’s Conservative party which actually occurred. In the United States in 1980, there was a general feeling that Ronald Reagan would probably win but no expectation of his landslide win – and certainly no expectation that he would lead his party to twelve years in the White House and he himself would become one of the celebrated “great” American presidents of the 20th century, the other four being Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson.

I can think of these Australian landslide victories in the same kind of atmosphere. Federally there were the Menzies victory of 1949 and the Fraser victory of 1975. In New South Wales there was the Wranslide of 1978. In Queensland there were the landslide victories of Peter Beattie in 2001 and of Campbell Newman in 2011. In South Australia there was the landslide victory of the Liberal Party in 1993. In Western Australia there was the landslide Labor win at the general election held on Saturday March 11 of 2017!

The results of this latest WA election are now complete. In the case of the Legislative Assembly the result was fully known on Monday March 20 and it was a Labor win with 41 seats, a majority of 23 over the combined non-Labor numbers of a mere 18 seats, 13 Liberals and five Nationals. The result of the Legislative Council election was fully known on Saturday March 25 and it produced a slightly better result for Labor and The Greens than I predicted. Details are given below. The vital statistic for the Legislative Assembly election is that there was a two-party preferred vote swing to Labor of 12.5%. Labor’s share in March 2013 was 42.7% and it rose to 55.2% this time. For Liberal-National the statistics are 57.3 and 44.8, respectively.

On Thursday February 9, a month and two days out from polling day, I had this article published on the SWITZER website “Leadership shakeup for WA and SA?” in which I predicted that Labor’s Mark McGowan and Steven Marshall of the Liberal Party would be the new premiers of Western Australia and South Australia, respectively. We can now remove the question mark for WA and I have no doubt that – a year hence – we shall remove it from SA also. However, I wrote these detailed predictions for the Legislative Assembly election:

“Two Labor-held seats – Collie-Preston and West Swan - have become notionally Liberal on the new maps. My prediction is that Labor will get a big enough swing to hold both Collie-Preston and West Swan. Labor will also gain these seats from the Liberal Party, Balcatta, Belmont, Bicton, Forrestfield, Joondalup, Kalamunda, Morley, Mount Lawley, Perth, Southern River and Swan Hills. That means Labor will, on my prediction, have 33 seats. I think the Liberal Party will get a consolation prize, however. The Liberals will gain the seat of Roe from The Nationals. . .So the total number of Liberals will be 20 and there will be six Nationals.”

As things turned out there was a seat shifting from National to Liberal but it was not Roe, as agricultural a seat as one would ever find. It was the mining seat of Kalgoorlie. But The Nationals also lost their leader’s seat of Pilbara to Labor. It was a win for the big mining companies who would have paid more tax if the tax reform promoted by Brendon Grylls had been implemented. Apart from losing the mining seats of Kalgoorlie and Pilbara this was a good result for The Nationals. It was an exceptionally good result in their area of traditional strength, agricultural Western Australia.

It is worth noting that EVERY seat I predicted Labor would gain from the Liberal Party WAS actually gained by Labor. Therefore, it is also worth noting some details of the seven seats gained by Labor I predicted would stay Liberal. I list them in order of the size of the swing needed by Labor as shown on my pre-election pendulum. They were Jandakot (18.1%), Kingsley (14), Darling Range (13), Bunbury (12.2), Murray-Wellington (12), Burns Beach (11.4) and Wanneroo (11.2). In essence, therefore, whereas I predicted a solid Labor win, those extra seven gains from  Liberals plus Pilbara gained from The Nationals turned the predicted solid win into a result now universally recognised to have been a landslide. It delivered Labor its biggest win in the state’s history with a majority of 23 seats compared with the seven-seat majority I predicted.

Of the seven seats named above the swing was biggest in Bunbury where the sitting member had retired. It was 23.1%, a clear case of a very large swing due to the combination of “retirement slump” (an American psephological term, self-evident in its meaning) and the general swing. The second and third biggest swings were in Darling Range and Jandakot, each being an even 19%. The fourth biggest was in Wanneroo where it was 18.5%. Kingsley at “only” 14.7%, Burns Beach at “only” 14.4% and Murray-Wellington at “only” 13.4% were moderate swings by comparison. Of course all those swings were higher than the state-wide swing of 12.5%. In each of Jandakot, Kingsley, Burns Beach and Pilbara Labor won the seat by defeating a minister in the Barnett government.

I asked my friend in the WA Liberal Party whether there were ANY individual results which could be said to have been good for the Liberal Party. He nominated Kalgoorlie, Dawesville and Riverton, in that order. My pre-election pendulum showed that Dawesville needed a swing of 12.7% for Labor to win. However, it was a good Liberal result because the sitting member had retired and the swing to Labor escaped the effect of retirement slump illustrated so starkly by Bunbury. The same pendulum shows that Riverton needed a swing of 12.8% for Labor to win. It had been noticeably strengthened by boundary change but it was in the past the nearest seat to the median on my pendulums, including being the ACTUAL median at the elections of 2001 and 2013. It was a Labor seat from 2001 to 2008 when Mike Nahan took it for the Liberal Party. On Tuesday March 21 the decimated Liberals met to replace their leader so Nahan is now the Leader of the Opposition.

The last paragraph of my February 9 article read this way: “Under the semi-proportional system for the Legislative Council (where there are 36 members) the result in March 2013 was 17 Liberals, 11 Labor, five Nationals, two Greens and one for the Shooters and Fishers Party. My prediction for this election is 14 Labor, 13 Liberals and three each for Nationals, Greens and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.”

In other words I predicted that the Labor-Greens combination would be 17 seats and the combination of the rest would be 19. The actual result is 18 apiece. However, Labor will need to provide a President of the Legislative Council who loses his/her vote on the floor as a consequence. Labor and The Greens, therefore, will quite often be out-voted by the rest, if they combine together. The new numbers are 14 Labor, nine Liberals, four each for Nationals and Greens, three for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and one each for the Liberal Democrats and the Shooters, Farmers and Fishers Party.

So, what lesson for South Australia can we learn from Western Australia? My belief is that the feeling will grow it will be a Liberal victory of landslide proportions. Perhaps, then, it will be a close result. I am inclined to reverse Butler’s dictum and say this: “Electoral history is littered with expected landslides which turn out to be close results”.

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Will Turnbull be a long-term leader?

Monday, March 13, 2017

By Malcolm Mackerras

There are political commentators who think the Australian people have stopped listening to Malcolm Turnbull who, therefore, has no chance of becoming a long-term prime minister. I do not think that. I do think, however, that he has only one chance in three to win the next election which I predict will be held on the first Saturday in March of 2019 with the New South Wales state election fixed for the last Saturday in March of that year. But, if Turnbull can survive that test, he could well become a long-term prime minister. What Turnbull needs is some good advice and, in that context, I consider the case of three people who want to give him advice. The first is a man, the second a woman and the third a man.

Tony Abbott's advice

The first is Tony Abbott. Until quite recently, I thought the advice he gave to his successor was well-intentioned. How naïve I was! What made me realise the error of my assumption was Abbott’s article in The Australian newspaper on Monday 30 January. It was titled Washminster’ gives us gridlock, not government to which the editor added this description: “Howard was right – let’s clear the way for our elected representatives to do their job”. In that article, Abbott dredged up a discredited reform to the Constitution proposed by John Howard in June 2003. It was a bad proposal to strip the Senate of its present power which Howard dropped like a hot cake – after well-informed criticism of it. I lack the space to describe it in detail but note that the chance of it being carried at a referendum would be zero. So, Abbott said he was being helpful, but surely he must have known he was trying to “put one over” Turnbull, not help him.

Then, on the evening of Thursday 2 March, the night before he launched the collection of conservative essays Making Australia Right: Where to from Here?, Abbott took to Sky News to declare that the Coalition would “drift to defeat” at the next election if it did not lift its game. He made a number of gratuitous comments the details of which I do not have the space to give here.

On Friday 3 March, he did the launch with these comments: “In short, why not say to the people of Australia: we’ll cut the renewable energy target to help your power bills; we’ll cut immigration to make housing more affordable; we’ll scrap the Human Rights Commission to stop official bullying; we’ll stop all new spending to end ripping off our grandkids; and we’ll reform the Senate to have government, not gridlock?” Almost every commentator noticed that none of those five policy positions was endorsed by Abbott when he was prime minister. Consequently, it is clear that Turnbull should turn a deaf ear to advice coming from Abbott.

Pauline Hanson's advice

The second person to whom Turnbull might listen is Pauline Hanson. I watched her on Insiders with Barrie Cassidy the Sunday before last, and note the rubbishing she has received from commentators for her observations on the vaccination of children, Vladimir Putin and Muslims. However, her statement which really offended me was this one: “If you look at what happened in the past, the Howard government changed the preferences from optional preferential voting in the 1998 election. That was the time when they colluded together, they agreed to get rid of One Nation and put us last on the how-to-vote tickets.” The first sentence there is an outright lie. Every election for the House of Representatives since 1918 has been conducted under the present system of full preferential voting, sometimes called compulsory preferential voting. The idea that Howard rigged the system against her is absurd.

For all her faults, however, Hanson did one good thing in that interview. Most people agree that the subject where Turnbull most clearly stands on the moral high ground is his attitude to the recommendations of the Fair Work Commission regarding penalty rates on Sundays. On that Hanson was clear. She supports the Coalition’s position. Good on her for that!

My advice

I am the third person to whom reference is made in the last sentence of my first paragraph, above. Hitherto, the only subject upon which I have given Turnbull advice has been Senate reform. He rejected my advice, went for his own reform, and the rest is history, so far. Having had my advice rejected once, why do I persist in giving him further advice? The answer is that almost everyone thinks he made a great mistake in rejecting my advice last year. He should not have gone for the double dissolution for which his Senate reform was intended to assist him. So, I now have three pieces of advice to give him.

First, since he so clearly stands on the moral high ground on the Fair Work Commission’s plan, he should be firm in his position. He should press the arguments he has made to date and not be intimidated by journalists or political opponents who think he is on a loser. I think he is going to win this argument and by the time of the next election the eggs will be scrambled to his satisfaction on this subject. A Shorten Labor government would not be able to reverse his win which would, of course, also be a win for the Fair Work Commission, Labor’s creation.

Second, he should emulate Julia Gillard in an important respect. She had a weak election win in 2010 just as Turnbull had a weak election win in 2016. She faced Rudd on the back bench and he faces Abbott in the same place. She made it clear that she would not resign the office of prime minister unless she was “blasted out” by her party. Eventually, she was blasted out, but it should be noted that Rudd was in a stronger position in respect of Gillard than Abbott (or any other contender in the Liberal Party) is today in relation to Turnbull. As I stated in my article posted here on Wednesday 24 July 2013 Why I admire Julia Gillard I supported very strongly the way she stood up to Rudd. I advise Turnbull to adopt the same strategy. Whereas Gillard was rolled and prevented from being Labor leader in the 2013 election campaign, I believe Turnbull will take my advice and be prime minister going into the 2019 election campaign.

Third, apart from criticising Turnbull’s horrible Senate voting system, my criticism of Turnbull has been that he has made too many concessions to his party’s right. Perhaps I have been mistaken there. After all, his duty is to keep his party united within itself and also to keep the two Coalition parties united together. That being so, I think he should make another concession to the right of the Liberal Party. I refer to section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act which is loathed by many in Turnbull’s party. A useful reform along those lines was proposed by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (Minister for International Development and the Pacific) in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday 7 March. It was titled We should put faith in ‘the man on the Bondi tram’ to which the editor added: “A ‘reasonable Australian’ will help us see what is worthy and what is wearisome”. Turnbull should read that and take notice!

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

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My take on the new Senate voting system

Monday, February 27, 2017

By Malcolm Mackerras

Readers of my articles on this website may have noticed that I’ve been gripped by something of an obsession on the subject of Senate reform. Over the years 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 no less than 14 articles by me on that subject were published here. They began on 9 October 2013 with “Senate election – drubbing for Labor and Greens – no good for Abbott”. They continued with four articles in 2014 and four in 2015. Then there were five articles by me last year beginning with “Senate reform still crucial” posted on 15 January and concluding on 7 November with “What will happen with Bob Day’s vacant Senate seat?” The individual whom I have been the most critical has been Senator Nick Xenophon, who I originally thought to be the “owner” of the present outlandish system. However, more recently I decided that it really is “owned” by the Liberal Party, and by Malcolm Turnbull in particular, since it quickly became clear that Turnbull needed this reform to put in place last year’s double dissolution. General elections for both houses were held on 2 July.

In September last year, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) of the federal parliament issued advertisements calling for submissions on any matter relating to those elections. I responded quickly with a 55-page submission which, had it been published immediately, would have appeared in mid-October 2016 and would have been number seven. Instead of that, however, my fourth edition came to 49 pages and was published on the JSCEM website in mid-February 2017 as number 139. Why the delay of four months?

Essentially, the Committee disliked me doing three things. First, I used language in some places thought not to be parliamentary. Second, I described private conversations I had with named individuals without first getting their permission. Third, I made damaging remarks about reform proposals advanced by five men without actually naming the men. By way of example, I referred to seven High Court judges as being “gutless wonders” and I referred to two conversations I had with John Howard, one in 2015 and one in 2016.

I resisted the idea of allowing other people (in the name of respecting protocol) thinking they should write my submission for me. I had a strong motive to stand my ground. In the end we reached a compromise, the submission is now public on the website and I am very pleased that I stood my ground on a number of key points. Consequently, my submission records my view that the new Senate voting system is dishonest, unfair, horrible, appalling, outlandish, unconstitutional, rigged and a disgrace. More importantly, perhaps, my submission records that the instructions on the Senate ballot paper are deceitful, that other analysts are seeking to put lipstick on the pig and that the Liberal Party in 1974, 1975 and 1983 has behaved in a bloody-minded way.

The alternative language suggested was “inaccurate” or “misleading” and not “deceitful” for the instructions on the ballot paper. Instead of calling the Liberal Party of years gone by “bloody minded” I should call it “intransigent”. I should drop entirely the expression “putting lipstick on the pig”. In respect of the majority of my private conversations, permission was not given by the other party. Consequently for three men with whom I had private conversations I had to drop their names while still quoting their opinions. In respect of Tony Abbott, I was not allowed to state what he said to me. I was, however, allowed to state that the conversation took place in his Canberra office and that it lasted for three quarters of an hour on the afternoon of Tuesday 16 August 2016.

My big success came with John Howard who was very co-operative. He disagrees with my views on this subject but allowed me to record that in two private conversations he described my views as being “very logical”. So what is this logic I parade as the basis of my reform proposal? It is easy to describe. Section 7 of the Australian Constitution in respect of senators and Section 24 in respect of members of the House of Representatives both command that senators/members shall be “directly chosen by the people”. Therefore, my logic asserts, both systems are commanded to be candidate-based. That has never been a problem for members, every one of whom has been directly chosen by the people. However, since 1984 the Senate system has been party-based. Consequently, since 1984 there has only ever been one senator directly chosen by the people. She is Lisa Singh, Labor, Tasmania, who holds a seat in the present Senate courtesy of her remarkably high below-the-line vote at the July 2016 election.

Finally, my supporters have expressed to me the view that I should feel insulted that the Committee should have subjected my submission to such extreme vetting. I disagree. I take it as a compliment, not an insult. Throughout this whole episode, I have argued that I am the Australian citizen best qualified to make a submission. My claim is based upon the fact that I have the letters AO after my name and the citation refers, among other things, to my “commitment to reform and improvement of the electoral system”. There is one other submission from a citizen with the post-nominals AO and his citation states: “For distinguished service to the law in the fields of anti-terrorism, human rights and constitutional law as an academic, author, adviser and public commentator”. No mention of the electoral system!

Consequently, given my claim, I SHOULD be subjected to the highest standards and it would not be appropriate if I complained at being subjected to standards not applied to other submissions – even though that complaint would be demonstrably true! While I am still proud of my first edition (which I call “original and unexpurgated”) I am actually grateful to the Committee for rejecting it. I am even grateful that the Committee rejected my second edition and then my third. I can claim that my fourth edition, now on the website, has been through the process of extreme vetting – for which reason, among many others, the Committee should recommend as I propose.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

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Leadership shakeup for WA and SA?

Thursday, February 09, 2017

By Malcom Mackerras

During the period between now and the winter of next year there will be state elections in Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania. Two have fixed dates. Western Australia goes to the polls on 11 March 2017 and South Australia on 17 March 2018. For the other two states, the dates will be determined by the Premier. However it would not surprise me if three states – Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania – went to the polls on the same day on 17 March 2018. Such chance simultaneous state elections have happened in the past.

My predictions

I plan now to predict the results in Western Australia and South Australia and leave the other two for the time being. So here goes.

  • In Western Australia, the Liberal-National coalition government under Premier Colin Barnett will be defeated and there will be a new Labor government led by Mark McGowan.
  • By way of contrast, the opposite will happen in South Australia in March 2018. The Labor government there will be defeated and replaced by a government composed of one party only, the Liberal Party. Labor’s Jay Weatherill will lose the office of Premier to Steven Marshall.

In a sense, of course, they are the same result – an incumbent government is defeated, as seems to happen so often these days. Each of McGowan and Marshall will have waited five years as Opposition Leader before becoming Premier. Each will have lost one previous election, McGowan in March 2013 and Marshall in March 2014.

At about this time next year, I shall predict the South Australian details and give advice to the incoming Premier and his party. Today, I deal with Western Australia where I begin with a brief history. Barnett is the senior leader of government in Australia. He won his first election on 6 September 2008. It was quite close but 24 Liberals, four Nationals and three conservative independents created a majority of three seats for what they called the “alliance” government. Labor won 28 seats at that election. The distribution of the two-party preferred vote was 51.9% for Liberal-National and 48.1% for Labor.

Barnett had a remarkably successful first term. Everything went right for him and wrong for Labor. Consequently, he romped home at his re-election for the first election under fixed terms. It was held on 9 March 2013, the second Saturday in March. (This forthcoming election is also to be held on the second Saturday, 11 March 2017). At that re-election, the two-party preferred vote was 57.3% for Liberal-National and 42.7% for Labor, a pro-Barnett swing of 5.4%. The Liberals won 31 seats and The Nationals seven, a total of 38 compared with 31 for the conservative side in 2008. Labor dropped to 21 seats, a loss of seven.

Normally such a bad result would be a disaster for McGowan. However, it needs to be remembered that the most recent defeats for Labor at that time had come in New South Wales in March 2011 and in Queensland in March 2012. At both elections Labor had been decimated. They were big defeats for Labor, real landslide losses. Furthermore, the unpopular Julia Gillard was Prime Minister at the time and McGowan had to put up with that fact. Consequently, McGowan’s performance was generally perceived to be a pretty respectable sort of a loss.

Just about everything that could have gone wrong for Barnett over the past four years has gone wrong. However, since I am writing about details I should mention that there has been another redistribution of electoral boundaries. There is a new seat for Labor called Baldivis but two Labor-held seats – Collie-Preston and West Swan – have become notionally Liberal on the new maps.

My prediction is that Labor will get a big enough swing to hold both Collie-Preston and West Swan. Labor will also gain these ten seats from the Liberal Party, Balcatta, Belmont, Forrestfield, Joondalup, Kalamunda, Morley, Mount Lawley, Perth, Southern River and Swan Hills. That means Labor will, on my prediction, have 32 seats.

I think the Liberal Party will get a consolation prize, however. The Liberals will gain the seat of Roe from The Nationals. Under the redistribution, the abolished rural seats of Eyre (Liberal) and Wagin (National) are merged into the new seat of Roe, which is notionally National. However, I think the Liberal candidate, Graham Jacobs, will defeat Peter Rundle of The Nationals. So the total number of Liberals will be 21 while there will be six Nationals.

Under the semi-proportional system for the Legislative Council (where there are 36 members) the result in March 2013 was 17 Liberals, 11 Labor, five Nationals, two Greens and one for the Shooters and Fishers Party. My prediction for this election is 14 Labor, 13 Liberals and three each for Nationals, Greens and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.

Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au

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Why Hillary Clinton was very, very unlucky

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Regular readers will not be surprised to know that I have spent a significant amount of time in the last two months analysing the US presidential elections last year. The more time I spend, the more I realise how hopelessly inadequate every piece of analysis I have read has been in Australian newspapers over that period. I think I can do better - so here goes.

For Barack Obama’s second term win, the dates were Tuesday 6 November 2012 for the popular vote and Monday 17 December 2012 for the electoral college vote. For Donald Trump’s win, the dates were Tuesday 8 November 2016 for the popular vote and Monday 19 December 2016 for the electoral vote. Candidates from the Democratic Party won both popular votes.

In 2012, they were 65,915,796 for Obama (51.06%), 60,933,500 (47.20%) for Republican Mitt Romney and 2,236,178 (1.74%) for all others combined.

In 2016, they were 65,834,793 (48.31%) for Hillary Clinton, 62,946,472 (47.19%) for Republican Donald Trump and 7,508,332 (5.50%) for all others combined. The 2012 statistics are absolutely final, while those for 2016 are 99.9% final.

Source: AAP

The American people do not elect their president

Of course, the American people do not elect their president – they merely participate in the choice of presidential electors. For that reason, these events should be seen strictly in two-candidate terms. Consequently, I say (and every academic analyst agrees) that in 2012, there were 2,236,178 votes thrown straight into the rubbish bin and 7,508,332 in 2016. Therefore, the Obama vote in two-candidate terms was 51.96% and 51.12% for Clinton. Thus, in 2016 the popular vote swing to the Republican Party was a miserable 0.84%.

The electoral votes

However, here are the electoral votes won by the four candidates. In 2012, Obama won 332, while in 2016 Clinton won 232. In 2012, Romney won 206, while in 2016, Trump won 306.

Exactly a hundred votes transferred from one party to the other resulted from such a miserable popular vote swing! Note that both elections sum up to 538 votes in all. From these statistics, I draw three conclusions. The first is that this is a truly horrible system. Second, Clinton was incredibly, repeat incredibly, unlucky. Third, Trump was very good at gaming the system.

Back in the days when I taught American Politics to university students, I used to defend this system in the way I still defend the Australian constitutional monarchy. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I should have known better. After all, I knew that in 2000, the equivalent popular votes were 50,992,335 (50.26%) for Al Gore, while there were 50,455,156 (49.74%) for George Walker Bush. But, of course, that was universally recognised to be a very, very close election. By contrast, 2016 was not close, either in the popular vote (won easily by Clinton) or in the Electoral College, which Trump and his supporters claim to have been a landslide vindication for him and a mandate for all his policies.

The defence I used to give was that the system favoured the big states and, for a variety of reasons, that was a good thing. So, in doing my analysis for 2016, I began with the six most populous states. Here they are in rank order, giving the electoral votes for each:

1. California: 55

2. Texas: 38

3. New York: 29

4. Florida: 29

5. Illinois: 20

6. Pennsylvania: 20

That adds up to 191 of the 538 votes. Obama lost Texas, but won the others, so his electoral vote in these states was 153 while that for Romney was 38.

In 2016, Clinton’s vote improved on that of Obama in California, New York and Illinois, making them even more solidly Democratic. She also improved on Obama’s vote in Texas, turning it from very solidly Republican in 2012 to very competitive for the Democratic Party today. At the same time, Florida and Pennsylvania flipped over from very narrowly Democratic in 2012, to very narrowly Republican in 2016. So, at this election, Clinton won only 104 votes from these states, while Trump won 87.

The interesting exercise is to add up the two-candidate popular votes in these six states. For 2012, they were 25,895,692 for Obama (55.36%) and 20,879.329 for Romney (44.64%). In 2016, they were 27,644,992 for Clinton (56.03%) and 21,693,564 for Trump (43.97%). So, there was a popular vote swing to Clinton of 0.67% in the six biggest states combined.

Why the Trump win is not like Brexit

Many commentators are seeing a likeness between Trump and Brexit. I could not disagree more. I do admit that, if I had been British, I would have voted Remain, as did my sister, two sons and daughter-in-law. However, I am quite glad Brexit won. It won fair and square with a 52-48 popular vote win over Remain. That is British democracy for you. I approve of British democracy which is majoritarian in concept and I approve of the way Theresa May is implementing the will of the British people. To that extent I have revised my opinion on this website of November 17 “Brexit and The Donald: both big mistakes? 

Source: AAP

My main thought on the anachronistic American system is that it is supposed to be semi-democratic, and it is that. It is also based on the theory of checks and balances. Yet, for the next four years, it will have the Republican Party running all four branches of government. In the case of the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, that will be so because they will be rigged that way. In the case of the Senate and the President, that will be so because the Founding Fathers substantially made the decisions on the rules in 1787. In practice, therefore, the “majority” party, Republican, will dominate over the “minority” party, Democratic. The checks and balances will operate in one direction only, and not according to the theory that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” (James Madison in the “Federalist Papers”, 1788). So much for political theory! 

Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au

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Turnbull’s 2016 report card

Friday, December 16, 2016

By Malcolm Mackerras

In September, I had published on this website my article Malcolm Turnbull’s report card: the verdict. It referred to the fact that September 14 marked one year of Turnbull leading the government as Prime Minister, having taken that office from Tony Abbott on September 14, 2015. I rated his performance as a B minus. 

Now that Turnbull has completed a full calendar year as leader, do I change my mark? I am genuinely sorry to need to write this but I HAVE changed my mark. It is now C plus. I am surprised at this but the optimistic predictions I made for him in October and November have not materialised.

Back in September, Turnbull had only one legislative achievement, the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 2016 in which he, in collaboration with Barnaby Joyce, Richard Di Natale and Nick Xenophon, foisted this awful Senate electoral system upon us so that there could be a double dissolution. 

I began the year 2016 with my article Senate reform still crucial. It was crucial then – and it still is. Turnbull’s choice of the WRONG Senate reform makes it so.

One should not condemn a system purely because one dislikes its party effects, but the fact remains, as I predicted, that the Senate of the 45th Parliament is worse than was the Senate of the 43rd or 44th Parliaments. 

My election-eve prediction (posted here on Thursday June 30) was Xenophon tipped as biggest Election Day winner. Was that a good prediction? Should I not have predicted Xenophon and Pauline Hanson as the TWO biggest winners? No, I think today Xenophon WAS the biggest winner. He, and one other NXT senator, have six-year terms and there are no signs of any defection from his ranks. By contrast, only Hanson herself has a six-year term and her team is lacking in discipline with the likelihood of Rod Culleton (WA) defecting in the New Year. See my article posted here on Wednesday August 24: Was Pauline Hanson elected to a six-year term? Please explain.

The Power of Xenophon

I happen to think that the power of Xenophon is bad for economic policy – and the same applies to Derryn Hinch (Victoria) and Jacquie Lambie (Tasmania). The three of them, combined together with Labor and the Greens, damage the legislation for which the government had a mandate. When the double dissolution was proclaimed on Monday May 9, the list of three deadlocked bills included two related bills to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The third was the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. The achievement of Turnbull on that is not disputed. It was passed in a form GENUINELY acceptable to the government.

The ABCC will be re-established. However, amendments to its operation made at the insistence of Xenophon and Hinch essentially mean that Turnbull’s face has been saved. No more. Here is where Turnbull’s boast is hollow. In various newspapers on Saturday December 10, Turnbull was quoted to say: “We are the first government since 1951 to take legislation to a double dissolution election and get it carried through the Senate without going to a joint sitting. That was Menzies in 1951. That’s no mean feat. The superannuation changes were very substantial. There are over $6 billion in savings over the forward estimates.”

Let me describe what I make of that. There have been seven double dissolution elections. In three (1914, 1975 and 1983) the government lost office. In four, the government retained office – 1951, 1974, 1987 and 2016. So, Turnbull’s DD belongs to the successful half. However, Menzies in 1951 and Hawke in 1987 genuinely achieved what they set out to achieve – and remained in office long thereafter. Who was more successful, Whitlam in 1974, or Turnbull in 2016? If Turnbull wins again in 2019, I would say Turnbull was more successful. However, I would point out that Whitlam was able to get all his DD bills passed by the August 1974 joint sitting UNAMENDED. Turnbull failed to achieve that. His election win was so weak he was forced to accept a miserably compromised ABCC instead.

The political year effectively ended on Friday 9 December. That day ended a horror week for Turnbull. On the preceding Monday, Josh Frydenberg, his hitherto very successful Environment and Energy Minister, was humiliated when he released the terms of reference for the government’s long-scheduled review of climate policy. After making his full statement he said the following in answer to a question: “We know that there have been a large number of bodies that have recommended an emissions intensity scheme, which is effectively a baseline and credit scheme. We’ll look at that.” After Senator Cory Bernardi raised hell against that innocuous statement, Turnbull denied Frydenberg. I think I have given enough explanation as to why I have lowered the B minus mark I gave to Turnbull back in September.

Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au

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Brexit and The Donald: both big mistakes?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

By Malcolm Mackerras

Both Brexit in June and Donald Trump’s victory in November were mistakes by the British and American people, respectively. Both will have bad effects for those foolish people – but those bad effects will take time to become manifest. Both nations will be poorer in the long run as a consequence of their 2016 folly. Those decisions were made by a relative majority of British voters and a largish minority of the Americans. The British decision was more intellectually defensible but, on the other hand, it’s possible (if unlikely) that ‘Trumpism’ can be consigned to the rubbish bin of history by waiting a mere four years. The British are stuck with their decision permanently. Thank God I am an Australian. I do not need to apologise for either my head of government or my head of state. If I were an American, I would apologise for both!

For me, personally, the difference between Brexit and the election of Trump is this: although I followed both events closely I never made any predictions about Brexit. By contrast, I did make American predictions in my conversation with Peter on Switzer TV and in an article on Switzer Daily. In that conversation, I predicted the vote would be 49% for Hillary Clinton and 42% for Trump. I described Clinton as “unpopular” and Trump much more unfavourably. In my article, I predicted that 384 electoral votes would be cast for Clinton and 154 for Trump.

The outcome

On the latest figures, the percentages of votes are 47.8% for Clinton and 47.2% for Trump, with Clinton leading by 1.5 million votes. The electoral votes are 306 for Trump and 232 for Clinton. Consequently, I over-estimated Clinton’s vote by 1.2% and underestimated Trump’s by 5.2%.

I over-estimated Clinton’s electoral vote by 152 and under-estimated Trump’s by the same amount. My excuse is easy to explain. I know nothing more about American public opinion than the polls tell me. Consequently, I made opinion-poll-induced predictions, which turned out to be wrong. In the case of Brexit, I also made opinion-poll-induced predictions. The polls in that case were so close the wise pundit knew the result was quite unknown, so I decided to make no predictions. The betting markets indicated a belief that Remain would win but I have never accepted the view that opinion polls are inferior to betting markets as a source of good predictions. Usually the betting markets merely follow the polls.

What went wrong?

Both my article and TV conversation with Peter came before the FBI director, James Comey, intervened in the election campaign. I agree with Clinton that the FBI inquiry came at a time when her campaign was riding high – and had the effect of defeating her. Being so, it tells us that her arrogance in having a private e-mail server while Secretary of State was fatal to her presidential ambition.

So one reason the polls were wrong was that voters changed their minds late in the campaign. The other reason may have been that Trump was the “disreputable” candidate in respect of whom voters were reluctant to admit an intention to vote. So-called “shy” and/or “sly” voters intended to vote for Trump, but told pollsters otherwise. The failure of the polls is best illustrated by Michigan and Wisconsin. Not one serious poll had Trump ahead in either state all year, but both finished up voting for Trump.

I wrote above something I hope is wrong but expect to be a correct prediction: “it is possible (if unlikely) that Trumpism can be consigned to the rubbish bin of history by waiting a mere four years”. Let me explain: I think of American politics as consisting of periods of one-party dominance. Andrew Jackson was the first President to call himself a “Democrat”. So the First Democratic Era ran from his election in 1828 until the realigning election of 1860 which ushered in the First Republican Era with Abraham Lincoln as President. That ran until the realigning election of 1932 which ushered in the Second Democratic Era with Franklin Roosevelt as President. That lasted until the presidency of Ronald Reagan which ran for 12 years from January 1981.

So 1980 was another realigning election, and like 1932, a genuine landslide. It converted “majority” party status from Democratic to Republican. Consequently, we are still in the second republican era. The three post-Reagan Republican presidents began with four years of Bush senior who was president on the coat-tails of Reagan’s success. The two most recent Republicans were Bush junior, a dud, and Trump, also a dud – so much so that neither could win as many popular votes as their Democratic rivals, Al Gore and Clinton.

Both won on the peculiarities of the American electoral system, giving the popular vote winner the historical description of “loser”.  Bush senior, Bush junior and Trump all performed worse electorally than the Republican Party as a whole. The term of Bush senior meant 12 years of Republican administration. Consequently, he was not re-elected in 1992 when it was the turn of the Democrats, according to the principle of “It’s time”. However, if a dud like Bush junior can get a second win in 2004, I see no reason why a dud like Trump cannot get a second win in 2020.

Perhaps I should explain my use of the term “dud”. There have so far been these cases of a President with fewer popular votes winning the anachronistic electoral vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George Walker Bush in 2000. The first three served only a single term and, for that reason, are correctly described as “duds”. Bush is different. He served a full eight years but historians generally have a low opinion of his presidency. 

Meanwhile, I hope I am wrong in all this. I can think of scenarios whereby I would be proved wrong. For example, it may be “It’s the economy, stupid” all over again in 2020. However, I believe historians will trace America’s decline to the presidency of Bush junior and will conclude that Trump was as appropriate a man as any to preside over US decline. I am pessimistic for America’s future but optimistic for Australia. 

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