Whenever I go to social gatherings, some long-lost acquaintance is very likely to ask me this: “Why are you out of the news these days? What are you doing with yourself?” I reply to the effect that I am writing a book intended to be called “Unrepresentative Swill”. To that the next question would be: “Is it about the Senate? Or is it about the entire federal parliament?” That surely indicates the extent of the discredit our federal politicians have brought upon themselves by their behaviour. Ordinary Australians think of both the Senate and the House of Representatives as being unrepresentative swill.

Anyway, the answer is that the book is about the Senate. I do not think of the House of Representatives as being unrepresentative swill for the simple reason that every lower house member has always been directly chosen by the people as required by section 24 of the Australian Constitution. The situation is very different in the Senate. As a result of changes to the voting system made by the Hawke Government in 1984 (and reinforced by the Turnbull Government in 2016) senators are not directly chosen by the people. They are appointed by party machines. Consequently, the Australian Electoral Commission “educates” the people to understand that the role of voters is merely to distribute numbers of party-machine appointments between parties according to a proportional representation formula between parties. That is why the Senate has been unrepresentative swill since 1984.

In recent times I have had some success in persuading commentators to describe the Senate in this way. The process began with Paul Kelly in The Australian. In an article on Wednesday 6 June titled “Anarchic Senate is Undermining Our Democracy” there was a sub-heading which reads: “It looks like disruptive minor players are here to stay in so-called house of review”. The gist of his view was given in the middle of the article and reads: “The record of these minor parties shows they are just as cynical, deceptive and self-interested as the major parties”

As recorded in my most recent article on this website, I sought an appointment with Kelly and we spent two hours together on the morning of Monday 18 June. I believe I have converted him to my view which is that the above-the-line voting system in place since 1984 needs to be replaced by the genuinely democratic voting system I propose. My reform would do away with all the contrivances of the present system which are there purely to serve the convenience of party machines and seem designed to confuse and deceive voters. My reform would take a fortnight to implement by normal legislation. No change would be needed to the Constitution.

Kelly followed up our conversation with an article on Wednesday 20 June titled “Senate needs to Rise above this Squalid Dysfunction” which quoted me as follows: “Voting systems make or break democracies. Psephologist Malcolm Mackerras calculates that had the last New Zealand election been held under Australia’s superior preferential voting system then Bill English would have been re-elected PM and the darling of the progressive media, Jacinda Ardern, would be in opposition.”

Kelly’s article was followed with a piece by Professor George Williams who is one of my unfavourite psephologists. Published in The Australian on Monday 25 June it was titled “Chaotic, Unrepresentative – our Senate is the Swill Keating described”. To that the editor added this description: “The rules have to change to stop this chaotic game of political musical chairs”. He thinks the problem lies with senators changing their party as several have done during this present term. Consequently his conclusion is: “Parliament should change its standing orders to remove the benefits and voting rights of senators who abandon their party without resigning from parliament. It also should reform the law. Where a person leaves the party that has enabled their election to the Senate, their seat should be vacated. The seat then would be filled by a member of their former party. These changes are needed to restore the proper functioning of the Senate and to rebuild public confidence in the parliament.”

In my book I take Williams to task in several places, most particularly in Chapter 14 titled “The Senate as Unrepresentative Swill”. I lack the space here to explain why I dismiss that article out of hand. Anyway, the Williams article was followed by another from Professor James Allan titled “Plenty wrong with the Senate: here are some Fixes” to which the editor added this description: “But trying to rid it of the party-hoppers is fraught with complexity and danger”. He points to overseas experience whereby attempts to prevent party-hopping have made the situation much worse.

The Allan article ends this way: “I’d be in favour of holding a referendum to propose reining in the powers of our Senate, say, to give it only a delaying power as regards money bills (the situation in Canada and Britain, neither of which has yet lapsed into totalitarian anarchy). We also might pick up a former prime minister’s suggestion to propose a referendum to make it easier to use the joint sitting provision, which in most situations allows the House of Representatives to outvote the Senate” 

In Australia we all get a vote to decide on our senators. It is the wrong kind of vote but we do get to vote. That is not the case in Britain or Canada. Consequently, these Allan proposals have a zero chance of being implemented. My effort is directed towards a democratic solution which can be implemented quickly by normal legislation. Therefore, I conclude by noting the remark attributed to the failed 1928 US presidential candidate, Al Smith, that all the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy. Whether that is true of American democracy has long been contested. It is certainly true of Australian democracy so far as its Senate is concerned.

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