My last article for this website was published on Friday, September 20, and was titled “My reaction to the election – a landslide?” In that article I discussed only the House of Representatives election because I KNEW the results. My conclusion was that the Rudd government (like the Howard government in 2007) went out of office in a “respectable loss”, not a landslide. Referring to the Senate I wrote: “It looks to me at the moment that the Senate election will see an absolute drubbing for Labor and a triumph for the incoming Abbott government. However, I do not know the results so I defer comment until I do.”
There is still a possibility of a recount of Senate votes in Western Australia. However, assuming that any recount delivers the same result as originally announced I say that the Senate election has seen an absolute drubbing for Labor and the Greens but it has not been a good result for Abbott who has actually lost a senator, Helen Kroger (Victoria). The big winner (and a surprise) has been Clive Palmer who not only immediately becomes the House of Representatives member for Fairfax (Queensland) but next year will welcome in three senators, namely Glenn Lazarus (Queensland), Zhenya Wang (WA) and Jacqui Lambie (Tasmania). From July next year the Coalition will have 33 senators (down one on the present), Labor 26 (down five) and the Greens nine (no change). So the balance of power will be held by the three Palmer United Party senators, two senators from South Australia (Nick Xenophon and Bob Day), two from Victoria (John Madigan and Ricky Muir) and David Leyonhjelm from New South Wales. The Palmer United Party, by the way, secured 4.9 per cent of the Senate vote for which they won 7.5 per cent of the seats contested (three of the 40).
I propose to defend the current Senate electoral system and I begin by considering the Greens. They won three Senate seats in 2007 (one each in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania) with nine per cent of the Senate vote. Then in 2010 they won six Senate seats (one from each state) with 13 per cent. At this election they have won three Senate seats (one each in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania) with 8.6 per cent. So their vote is down but the rotation of senators means they keep nine seats, Scott Ludlam (WA) being defeated but Janet Rice (Victoria) replacing him next July. Purely as an exercise in arithmetic I decided to add together the 1,667,315 Senate votes for the Greens in 2010 to the 1,159,502 in 2013 and express it as a percentage of the combined formal vote for the two elections. In other words over the two elections they won 10.8 per cent of the Senate vote. For that they are rewarded with nine senators which is 11.8 per cent of the Senate of 76. While I am personally sorry that Ludlam has been defeated I say that the Greens have no basis to complain that they have been treated unfairly.
However, the Greens are not the most unreasonable complainers. That title must go to the Liberals in New South Wales who complain that David Leyonhjelm has been elected using the title “Liberal Democrats”. From the way they are carrying on one would think he had taken the seat of Arthur Sinodinos. Not so. Sinodinos (Liberal Party, third on the Coalition’s joint ticket in NSW) has been elected through the well-worn process of preference harvesting so, in actual fact, Leyonhjelm will take a seat from Labor. Why on earth would the Liberals complain about that? It seems to me they should get used to the Liberal Democrats just as the Australian Labor Party has been compelled to get used to the Democratic Labour Party.
Senator Helen Kroger (Liberal, Victoria) and Senator Don Farrell (Labor, South Australia) have each been defeated and I am personally sorry about that. However, let’s face it. They are party machine appointees to the Senate, Kroger an accountant from the most blue-ribbon Liberal seat in Melbourne and Farrell a trade union official from Adelaide. Both Kroger and Farrell will have no trouble re-entering the Senate when another vacancy arises. However, the most persistent complaint about the Senate electoral system comes from those who think it is a wicked thing that Kroger should have been defeated by Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. I think this complaint is quite misguided – as I explain below.
Those who demand reform to the system seem to me to be in two categories. On the one hand there are those who are very steeped in the details of the system. I think they are too much preoccupied with individual trees so that they cannot appreciate the beauty of the forest. Then there are those who are peeved for some reason. They think senators who are party machine appointees of the big parties are more worthy than the blacksmith from Ballarat or the sawmill operator from East Gippsland.
Two types of reform have been proposed. One is to place a threshold below a party’s vote and cut out any party with less than, say, five per cent. The trouble with that proposal is it would be unconstitutional. My basis for this assertion is section 7 of the Constitution: “The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting as one electorate.” The words “directly chosen” command a candidate-based election. Few people seem to understand this point but the fact is that the present system is candidate-based. Once you put in a threshold you change it to a party-list system and senators would then no longer be directly chosen by the people.
The other proposed reform is to import the system operating for the New South Wales Legislative Council, the details of which I do not have the space to elaborate. I think that is a goer. Indeed I think that is what will actually be done. I shall oppose it but I expect it to be implemented. It is true that when it was implemented in New South Wales I did not oppose its introduction so I had best explain why. There have been three successful elections under that system, in 2003, 2007 and 2011, each for 21 members at a half-Council election.
Take the 2003 result. There were 15 groups and 284 candidates. The result of the election was the return of ten candidates from the Labor group, seven from that of Liberal/National and two from the Greens. Then there were elected John Tingle from Group C (Shooters Party) and Gordon Moyes from Group N (Christian Democratic Party). The point is that with 21 to be elected the quota for election is only 4.6 per cent of the vote. Consequently the NSW system does not discriminate against minor parties. Indeed in the present Legislative Council there are 19 from the Coalition, 14 Labor, five Greens, two Shooters and Fishers and two Christian Democrats.
Once you import that system to a Senate election for only six places you WOULD discriminate against minor parties. That is why I am not taken in by all this reform talk. I do not dispute that reform is supported by distinguished electoral analysts. Indeed I am the only one opposed. Nevertheless I still think it is just a means whereby big -party machines would take back seats they have lost to smaller parties.
The reality of our recent election is that it showed the existence of a substantial body of Australians who intensely dislike all of the Liberals, the Nationals, Labor and the Greens. That is why there will be eight “other” senators come July next year. So let me quote the overall percentages and the seats compared with the 1996 election, the last time a Labor government was thrown out of office. In 1996 the Coalition won 44 per cent of the vote and 20 of the 40 seats and Labor won 36.2 per cent and 14 seats. That left six for “others”. In 2013 the Coalition won 37.7 per cent of the vote and 17 seats and Labor won 30.1 per cent of the vote and 13 seats. That left ten for “others”, three Greens, three Palmer United Party, Leyonhjelm, Muir, Day and Xenophon.
I referred above to the blacksmith from Ballarat and the sawmill operator from East Gippsland. There I was referring to Victorians John Madigan (elected in 2010) and Ricky Muir (elected in 2013). I have met Madigan and was most impressed by him. I have not met Muir but, do doubt I shall. They are the senators who are disparaged because, it has been alleged, they were elected with so little support. When the great reform comes they will be out of their seats and be replaced by suitable party machine appointees from the Liberal Party who will be lawyers, accountants or merchant bankers living in Kew, Brighton, Malvern or Toorak – unless, of course, Labor takes one of the seats in which case the new senator will be a trade union official.
Finally let me stress again that our Constitution commands we have a candidate-based electoral system. And what were the votes for Muir and Kroger? Here they are: 17,083 for Muir and 1,456 for Kroger. Who is to say Kroger has been unfairly done out of her seat? I think the reality is that both Kroger and Muir engaged in preference harvesting – but Muir beat Kroger at that game. I am not offended.
(Malcolm Mackerras is visiting fellow in the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University, Canberra campus.