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Malcolm Mackerras
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Barnaby Joyce should have resigned seat in August

Friday, September 08, 2017

By Malcolm Mackerras
Today I make reference to three subjects. First, in mid-October we shall know the decisions of the High Court in relation to the citizenship (and therefore eligibility) of various members of the federal parliament. I do not pretend to have any idea what those decisions will be but I do wish to make some observations about Barnaby Joyce. The first is that if he had asked me for advice I would have advised him to resign his seat of New England on Monday 14 August. That was the day when New Zealand prime minister Bill English announced that Joyce was/is a citizen of New Zealand. In matters of this kind it is usually better to take the initiative. Joyce would surely have won the by-election which could have been held quite quickly. That would have prevented the nonsense which is going on in federal parliament at present.
However, having not done that, he must now wait for the High Court judges to exercise their power over him and the others. He can thank his lucky stars (and his own good judgment) that he is a member of the House of Representatives. He would remember that he began his political career as a senator. Indeed he took his Senate seat (representing Queensland) on the same day as Fiona Nash took her seat as a New South Wales senator. The date was 1 July 2005, both Nationals having been elected in October 2004.
Today the positions of Joyce and Nash stand in great contrast. If Nash is ruled not eligible to stand for federal parliament her seat is confiscated from her and given to a Liberal Party candidate, Holly Hughes, whose term would last until 30 June 2022. That is because Nash was one of the top six elected for NSW in July 2016 and, therefore, is a long-term senator. The point is that with senators the voters are given no right to reverse the decision of the Court. Their seats are confiscated by the Court and that is that.
A contrasting situation arises with members of the House of Representatives. If Joyce has his seat confiscated he can appeal to the voters of New England who, surely, would re-elect him. In that regard the situation of Joyce has the precedents of Phil Cleary in 1993 and Jackie Kelly in 1996. Their electorates of Wills and Lindsay, respectively, did indeed reverse the judgment of the Court because both Cleary and Kelly could get rid of the impediment which the judgment of the Court discovered. Meanwhile Joyce, having made his choice, must stick by it and hope the sittings of parliament help to discredit Labor. There are signs of that happening.
Second, I predict that a Queensland state election will be held on Saturday 28 October. It will be on new electoral boundaries, there being 93 seats in the next Legislative Assembly compared with 89 at present. The result of the last election (held on 31 January 2015) was 44 for Labor, 42 for the Liberal National Party, two for Katter’s Australian Party and one Independent. My prediction for this election is 50 for Labor, 36 for the LNP, four for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, two for KAP (Hill and Traeger) and one for The Greens (South Brisbane).
The third subject I raise today covers my personal obsession – Senate reform. There has been a development in this area since I last wrote about it and, on balance, the development is welcome. There has been a reform of the voting system for the Legislative Council of South Australia. The important point is that the SA parliament rejected the view of the Liberal Party that the SA Legislative Council system should copy the (new) Senate system. That is a good thing – especially given that the view rejected by the SA Parliament was heavily promoted by Nick Xenophon. There was another plus in this development. It cost Xenophon his only supporter in the state parliament, a certain John Darley, who continues in the Legislative Council as an independent until 2022. In my opinion any development which weakens Xenophon’s influence is a good thing. While there is still a long way to go before we get a decent Senate voting system I record this SA development as a very small step in the right direction.
This will probably be my last contribution to Switzer for two months. The reason for my absence is that my wife and I have a son Patrick who is to marry his English lady friend later this month in the Cotswolds and we are not merely going to the wedding. We are taking a British Isles holiday while we are at it. Readers may, therefore, expect my next contribution to be on about 7 November.
(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University.


My latest thoughts on the same-sex marriage plebiscite

Monday, August 14, 2017

By Malcolm Mackerras

This article sets out my latest thoughts on the matter of the same-sex marriage plebiscite. I begin by noting that my first article carried the self-explanatory title Same-sex plebiscite a waste of money and my second article made a prediction: Same-sex marriage referendum on February 11. The first article was posted on Friday 4 September 2015 and the second on Thursday 3 November 2016. I note that the second article made a wrong prediction but contained useful material none-the-less. It is the first article I wish now to re-visit.

My important point is that the article was published during the last parliamentary term. It was reasonable for me to argue the “waste of money” line at that time. However, a general election has intervened. At that general election, Prime Minister Turnbull made a clear-cut promise of a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Several members and senators from the Liberal Party and the Nationals have told me of that promise they made personally to individual voters. They would be very angry if Turnbull cut them loose by joining the ranks of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott among the notorious promise-breakers.

Earlier this year, the government presented the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2017, which passed the House of Representatives and went to the Senate. In that chamber, a majority of senators (being Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon team and Derryn Hinch) decided it was not the role of the Senate any longer to “keep the bastards honest”. Its role was to play politics to embarrass Malcolm Turnbull. On this subject, as on so many, the Senate majority ensured that this will be recorded as our worst-ever Senate. It has truly deserved its reputation as unrepresentative swill.

The thinking of that majority was bloody-minded and irresponsible. It thought Malcolm Turnbull would welcome an excuse to break his promise to the people and blame the Senate. They were very wrong. They should have passed the Bill which would have given the same-sex marriage supporters the best chance to win by having a “normal” vote by attendance at polling places with compulsory voting.

They mis-read Turnbull and played their politics badly. That is what so often happens when politicians are too clever by half. Turnbull was determined not to join the ranks of the Gillard-Abbott promise breakers. He thought, and received the over-whelming backing of his party, that the Senate should be given another chance to let him keep his promise to the people. On Wednesday 9 August, the Senate majority refused. They are now hoist on their own petard. Consequently, we shall have a postal vote plebiscite under the worst possible set of rules for the same-sex marriage advocates.

They are now squealing. Well they might. They have kicked an own goal. Both Turnbull and Tony Abbott are delighted. For Turnbull it probably means that it will be recorded by historians that it was HIS parliament (the 45th Parliament) which enacted same-sex marriage. That will mightily disappoint the Turnbull-haters on the left. For them, the last thing they want is for Turnbull to get any credit for being the progressive he is. For them, this issue was tailor-made for his embarrassment. It will so annoy them that he gets the credit – as he will.

On a personal note, I record that there was a referendum in 1999 when John Howard, Tony Abbott and I campaigned together against Turnbull and the Labor Party. We won. We protected the Australian Constitution – or, to be more precise, we protected that institution which lies at the apex of our Constitution, the constitutional monarchy. For this plebiscite, by contrast, I shall campaign with Turnbull and the Labor Party against Abbott and Howard. I wish to see Australia join every other country of the Anglosphere in being a modern democracy. I am confident of our victory.

So my opinion of Turnbull has risen sharply. However, I have still not forgiven Turnbull for his “Senate reform” last year – foisting upon the Australian people the worst-ever Senate voting system. He created the present unrepresentative swill. However, having noted that fact, it is pleasing to see him down face the moralising so and sos who people that place of unrepresentative swill.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University.


Why Section 44 of the Constitution needs fixing

Thursday, July 27, 2017

By Malcolm Mackerras

This article contains my latest thoughts on constitutional reform and my views are simply stated. At the next federal election in 2019, there should be a referendum to fix section 44 of the Constitution. That should be done regardless of whether or not the High Court decides to confiscate the Senate seat from Matthew Canavan (Nationals, Queensland). I believe the referendum for a new section 44 would be carried. There would be a significant negative vote from the many people who would see this as the politicians helping themselves. However, I believe reason would prevail and the change would be made. I return to this subject below.

Apart from the above, no change to the Constitution should even be considered, let alone a referendum be held, during the next three years. I am totally opposed to the idea of a fixed four-year term for the House of Representatives under the present circumstances. My reasons are many, but let me state just one. There would be no chance for such a referendum to be carried.

The argument most commonly put is that the six states and both territories have four-year terms, so the Commonwealth should follow suit. Let me remind readers, however, that Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT introduced four-year terms by simple act of parliament. The people were never consulted.

In New South Wales, the present situation (fixed four years for the Legislative Assembly and fixed eight years for the Legislative Council) has prevailed since 1995, but that is not analogous in any way to the situation of the Commonwealth. The NSW situation has been the consequence of a series of legislative decisions and referendums going back sixty years. The first relevant referendum occurred in April 1961 and I lack the space to explain all the subsequent developments beyond noting their total lack of relevance for the Commonwealth.

In Queensland, there was a referendum on Saturday 19 March 2016, at which voters were asked whether or not they approved “A Bill for an Act to provide for fixed four-year terms for the Legislative Assembly in Queensland.” There were 1,302,398 affirmative votes (53%) and 1,157,043 negative votes (47%). However, note the lack of an upper house in Queensland!

My main objection federally is to the idea of giving senators terms of eight years. Like many other people, I think the present Senate voting system is the worst in Australia and is the worst-ever Senate voting system. Senators who get their places under such a system should not have their terms extended. In this regard, I commend readers to the article on Tuesday July 25 in “The Australian” newspaper by Paul Kelly titled “Con job: four-year terms good only for pollies”. His conclusion on the Senate is: “What should change is the voting system.”

I wrote a long e-mail letter of congratulations to Kelly in which I noted, among other things, that all his examples of the undemocratic nature of the system were taken from Tasmania, our least populous state. “What about South Australia?” I thought. Consequently, I hope readers will not object to my quoting two paragraphs from my letter to Kelly:

“Permit me, however, to add this thought to your present very straight thinking. It concerns Nick Xenophon whose name you did not mention. An important reason for my intense hostility to the change last year to the Senate voting system was my knowledge that the change was DESIGNED to increase the number of Xenophon senators from one to three. That was the only part of its design which succeeded and it caused me to be very hostile to Xenophon, a man to whom I had previously been quite friendly. The new system was NOT designed to shift a net two Senate places from Liberal to Labor! It was NOT designed to resurrect the political career of Pauline Hanson and give her a parliamentary party of four! It was NOT designed to cause the re-election of David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day and Jacquie Lambie. Those were predictable but unintended consequences. However, the new system WAS designed to increase the number of Xenophon senators from one to three.

“That is a bad thing. The present position is that the Greens and the Nationals regret voting for this system. It is now “owned” by the Liberal Party, the Xenophon party and that serial pest Antony Green. If you doubt my word I invite you to read recent debates in the parliament of South Australia where it is seriously proposed that the voting system for their Legislative Council should COPY the Senate system.”

Finally, I return to the topic of my opening paragraph. My most recent article on this website was My sympathy for Culleton, Day, Ludlam and Waters posted on Thursday July 20. With further thinking on it, I realise that I should have asked for it to be titled “My sympathy for senator-elect Hill and for senators Culleton, Day, Ludlam, Waters and Canavan”. The High Court decision which really outraged me was in 1999, when the judges confiscated the Senate seat from One Nation senator-elect, Heather Hill. I lack space to give details beyond noting that she was elected for Queensland in October 1998, but was never allowed to take the seat to which she was elected with a first-preference quota in her own right. That is why I think we need a new section 44 which is fool-proof against the kind of judicial law making of the High Court which that case exhibited.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University.


My sympathy for Culleton, Day, Ludlam and Waters

Thursday, July 20, 2017

By Malcolm Mackerras

This is an article about former senator Scott Ludlam, a man I have never met. Readers, therefore, may wonder why I would think to write an article about a single former politician. The answer is that I have known former senator Bob Day for many years. This website contains two articles by me on Day, the first expressing my admiration for him (Why I admire Bob the Builder) posted on Monday 11 April 2016, the second expressing my sympathy with him (What will happen to Bob Day’s vacant Senate seat?) posted on Monday 7 November 2016. Finally, I had published a third article on Friday 7 April 2017 titled Will Family First retain its Senate seat? Given the striking similarity between the Day and Ludlam cases, I feel a duty to write one article on Ludlam.

Day is a man of the hard right, while Ludlam is a man of the hard left. It is not surprising, therefore, that neither man would express admiration for, or sympathy with, the other. That fact would be no excuse for me to fail to express my admiration for, and sympathy with, BOTH men. They did exactly the same thing. In expectation that the High Court would confiscate their seats from them, they resigned in dignity. Then their detractors threw as much mud at them as possible.

I dissented from all the High Court decisions in these cases. They have been for Senate-seat winners Robert Wood in 1987, Heather Hill in 1998, Rodney Culleton in January 2017 and Day in February 2017. However, my opinion does not matter. High Court judges have power, I have none. The interest for me lies in my ability to demonstrate the superiority of the electoral system for the House of Representatives over that for the Senate. The same thing has happened in recent times in respect of two members of the lower house, Phil Cleary in 1992 and Jackie Kelly in 1996. In effect, the electors of Wills (Victoria) in March 1993 and of Lindsay (NSW) in October 1996 were allowed to express their dissent from the ruling of the High Court. In both cases, the decision of the Court was over-turned by the people. That cannot happen in respect of senators. The seat is confiscated, and that is that.

The commentary on Ludlam to which I object is that which I have heard from a Liberal senator and a right-wing independent commentator. Neither expressed any sympathy for Ludlam. Both drew attention to the fact that he was told three years ago that he was a New Zealand citizen and he should, therefore, have renounced his “foreign” citizenship at that time. What these commentators should acknowledge is that if Ludlam had so renounced, he would have told his enemies that he had not been eligible to contest the April 2014 re-election of senators for Western Australia. To do that would have been a gift to his enemies. Consequently, I think a description of the various elections of Ludlam is called for – so that people can understand his unique predicament.

He was first elected in November 2007. His first preference vote was two-thirds of a quota but he received enough preferences to be elected and he took his seat on 1 July 2008. He was re-elected in September 2013, again with two-thirds of a quota and again receiving enough preferences to be declared elected. Then, the High Court voided the election of all six senators so declared elected, of whom he was one. 

In recent years, that decision of the High Court is the only case of interest to me where I have agreed with the decision. It was handed down on 18 February 2014 and the judgment was written by then Justice Kenneth Hayne, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns. It gave an affirmative answer to this question: “Did the loss of the 1,370 ballot papers between the fresh scrutiny and the re-count mean that the 1,370 electors who submitted those ballot papers in the poll were ‘prevented from voting’ in the Election for the purposes of section 365 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918?”

The story of the re-election in Western Australia on 5 April 2014 was of such interest to me that I devoted a special article to it on this website, Senate election the best exercise in democracy”, posted on Wednesday 9 April 2014. The star performer was Ludlam – so let me give some statistics. In September 2013, there were 1,310,278 formal votes and the quota was 187,183 votes (14.3 per cent). In April 2014 there were 1,277,804 formal votes and the quota was 182,544 votes (14.3 per cent). Ludlam received 122,752 first preference votes in 2013 (9.4 per cent) so he needed preferences to be elected. In 2014, however, he received 198,845 first preference votes which was a quota in his own right. At the 2016 Senate general election, Ludlam again received a quota in his own right, but that was not so difficult since, with 12 being elected, the quota was only 7.7 per cent. Nevertheless, he was given a six-year term, unlike all the other cases who were given short terms.

So, is there a come-back for Ludlam? Probably not. His successor will be Jordon Steele-John, a 22-year old university student who has cerebral palsy. While there are several scenarios of a Ludlam comeback, they seem to me to require such unselfishness on the part of Steele-John and the other WA Greens senator, Rachel Siewert, that I cannot see any of them happening. These scenarios are too complicated for me to describe here.

Even as I was writing this article, the news came through that Larissa Waters (Greens, Queensland) had resigned her Senate seat – for the same reason as Ludlam. Having expressed such sympathy for two men (Day and Ludlam) I now feel I must express equal sympathy for the one woman, Waters! However, her replacement, Andrew Bartlett, will be an effective performer for the Greens, given his previous membership of the Senate and the fact that he was once a highly effective leader of the Australian Democrats.

There have now been six cases of this phenomenon, Wood, Hill, Culleton, Day, Ludlam and Waters. All six had their seats confiscated from them by the High Court, or resigned in expectation of such confiscation. None could appeal to the voters against the decision. None is likely to have a comeback. That must surely be a warning to future aspirants for political office. Beware the power of the High Court – and do what you need to do to be on the right side of the judges!

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University.


Will we see a reformed Senate voting system?

Friday, July 07, 2017

Back on Tuesday 21 April 2015 there was published on this website under my name an article titled ”What do the Americans and the Liberal Party have in common?” The article began by quoting the famous quip from Sir Winston Churchill that “The Americans can always be relied upon to do the right thing – but only after they have exhausted every alternative.” It then went on to say I was hopeful that one day Australia’s Liberal Party would eventually do the right thing in relation to reform of the Australian Senate voting system.

So far I have waited in vain in that respect. However, recently there arose a piece of news on another front, which tells me that there is a definite chance I shall live to see that hope realised. A feature of our electoral system, for which I pressed strongly in 2003, is now to bear fruit. So I have waited fourteen years for this. Being now 77 years old, if I live to the age of 91 (of which there is a possibility), I may see the Australian people given a decent Senate voting system along the lines I have advocated in several articles on this website.

One of my peculiarities is that I live in Canberra. For that reason, I wish to see the Australian Capital Territory treated fairly when it comes to representation in the Australian federal parliament. Since the ACT is not a state, I have never expected our Senate representation to be decent. The Senate, after all, is the house of the states. Not surprisingly, neither the ACT nor the Northern Territory is properly represented there. However, I have always thought the people of both the ACT and the NT should get the same “fair go” in the House of Representatives as is the case for the six states.

Back in 1949, the ACT was given one seat in the lower house. In 1974, that was increased to two, the number at which it has remained ever since. In 1974 the Division of Canberra had 50,039 electors and the Division of Fraser had 52,689. Those were roughly the same numbers as elsewhere. By 2016, however, the numbers had increased so that Canberra had 138,233 electors and Fenner had 131,391. The name Fraser was changed to Fenner to allow a new seat of Fraser to be created in Victoria, called after Malcolm Fraser. Deceased prime ministers always have a seat called after them – in the state of their representation.

Back in 2001, there were two members in the ACT (Canberra and Fraser – both Labor) and two members in the NT, the marginal Liberal seat of Solomon (Darwin area) and Lingiari, safely Labor and majority indigenous since it covers 98% of the area of the NT. Then something happened of interest to me. Population statistics were issued and entitlements calculated. The ACT became entitled to 2.4209 seats and the NT to 1.4978 seats. So the Northern Territory would revert to having one member only.

The then Country Liberal Party member for Solomon, David Tollner, tabled a bill in the House of Representatives which simply asserted that no Territory have less than two members. That was wanted by the Liberal Party but annoyed people like me who believe in this principle: “Let the chips fall where they may”. That is the proper approach to these matters.

The upshot was that the federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters sought submissions which were considered properly. A mathematical genius was able to come up with a new formula for doing these things, the details of which I lack the space to explain here. The point is that in 2003, the EFFECT of this brilliant formula would be that each of the two territories would continue to have two members, and Tollner would win again in 2004. So the Liberal Party would keep a seat in 2004, which it would otherwise have lost if the NT, went back to a single seat. However, Labor was also happy because the new formula would make it more likely that the ACT would regain its third seat in the future. Thus was enacted the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 2004 with a formula, which is still in place.

I can see why the Liberal Party thinks Canberra SHOULD be under-represented. When the ACT had three members (at the 1996 election, and only at that election) Labor won all three seats. That is very likely to happen again in 2019. However, when that formula was adopted in 2004 it was known that some day it would help the ACT to have its third member returned to it. That day has now come.

While the Liberal Party will not be happy to know that, in 2004, it agreed to a new formula which would EVENTUALLY give Labor another seat it must surely acknowledge that the ACT should have three seats. It should also acknowledge that the time will come when the ACT returns two Labor members and one for the Liberal Party. In 1996, Labor easily won two seats, but the third was quite close. In the third seat, the Labor winner polled 32,542 votes (51.5%), while the Liberal loser polled 30,628 votes (48.5%).

All the above comes in the national context caused by census statistics becoming available. In the present House of Representatives, New South Wales has 47 seats, Victoria 37, Queensland 30, Western Australia 16, South Australia 11, Tasmania 5 and the Territories two each. That makes a total of 150. However, new maps will now have to be drawn up to divide Victoria into 38, South Australia into 10 and the ACT into 3. That will make a total of 151.

Now notice this detail. South Australia is now the country’s failed state. It cannot keep up with the rest. Back at the 1949, 1951 and 1954 elections, SA then had 10 seats. So back in those days, SA had 10 out of 123 seats, or 8.1%. In 2019 it will have 10 out of 151, or 6.6%. Of course, its population has grown but its SHARE of Australia’s population has shrunk significantly, as illustrated by these statistics.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University.


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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.



My take on the new Senate voting system

Leadership shakeup for WA and SA?

Why Hillary Clinton was very, very unlucky

Turnbull’s 2016 report card

Brexit and The Donald: both big mistakes?

What will happen with Bob Day's vacant Senate seat?

Same-sex marriage referendum on February 11

99% chance Clinton will be President

Malcolm Turnbull’s report card: The verdict

Was Pauline Hanson elected to a six-year term? Please explain

Winners and losers in the new Senate

Should Malcolm Turnbull be quietly crowing?

Senate reform must be scrapped

Xenophon tipped as biggest Election Day winner

Turnbull's Senate reforms may come back to haunt him

Are the odds in Malcolm's favour?

Why I admire Bob the Builder

Can we trust the Greens?

A national approach

Senate reform still crucial

My key predictions for 2016

Death and by-elections

Former PMs share one thing in common

Turnbull to win next two elections

Same-sex plebiscite a waste of money

There will be no early election

A proper reform of the electoral system

A new Green - Di Natale will not be more co-operative than Milne

Why ABC’s Antony Green is wrong about the ‘feral’ senate

What do the Americans and the Liberal Party have in common?

Remembering Fraser and a rewrite of history

The political future for NSW and NZ

A tale of unusual times

The Queensland election and some advice for the Abbott Government

Musings on Gough

Why commentary on the re-election has been unsatisfactory

Senate election the best exercise in democracy

Unusual writ returns

So, who really won Griffith?

Predictions for forthcoming federal elections

The good, the bad and the defensible Abbott Government decisions

Clive Palmer launches attacks on the AEC

Senate election - drubbing for Labor and Greens; no good for Abbott

My reaction to the election - a landslide?

My final predictions: an Abbott or Rudd government?

A clever political trickster is our Tony Abbott

Why I admire Julia Gillard

Rudd a gutless wonder