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.