There are questions that cleave nations, the junctures where the paths of history fork.
Who has the right to vote? Is this is our war to fight? Should above the line Senate voting change from a group ticket preference system to an optional preferential system wherein voters are instructed to number a non-mandatory minimum of six boxes above the line while the mandatory minimum of 90% numbered boxes below the line is replaced with a non-mandatory nominal minimum of twelve numbered boxes and an unwritten mandatory minimum of six numbered boxes which will act as a savings provision for those who confuse the below the line and above the line voting instructions as well as some changes to the mechanism of election night ballot counting for the sake of expediency and thrift, or not?
Three weeks ago this question turned mother against child and husband against wife when as many as tens of Australians marched to civil war. The conflict culminated in a bloody forty-hour filibuster in which countless brave Senators fell. I weep, for instance, when I think of Labor’s Glenn Sterle, ungraced by sleep and athrob with the furies of battle, who lifted his sword and lost his mind:
Senator Sterle: [Slurring] I never thought I would ever miss senators Milne and Brown. I know what I’ve just said, and I can assure you I’m stone-cold sober. I am so glad that Senator Di Natale, in between turtle-neck shoots, is in the chamber. Because the previous doctor Di Natale will be able to correct me if I’m wrong on a certain medical procedure. I’m actually witnessing in my mind, a political colonoscopy … I’ve actually had one. And I was wide awake, so I really get this. How brave is that? Wide awake, because I did not want to wake up with them doctors giving me a surprise, in the area that they were saying.
Finance Minister Matthias Corman: I know this at times can sometimes be a wide-ranging debate, but I’m not sure how Senator Sterle’s colonoscopy relates to the amendment before the chair.
Sterne: Don’t give me orders, you big Belgian waffle.
“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
Casualties aside, it is interesting to note how each party’s approach to Senate Reform (best explained by Antony Green) reflect their ideological positions. The Coalition, advocates of individual freedom and personal betterment, supported the bill because it was their self interest. But the ALP, defenders of the community and a fair go for all, opposed the bill because it was in their self interest. Meanwhile the Greens, as usual, stayed above the grubby cut-and-thrust of political expedience and supported the bill because it was in their self interest.
Under the old system, fewer than 3% of people vote below the line. But counting myself among that civic elite who numbered all 104 boxes below the line last election, I frankly don’t see why we should be making things easier for the riff-raff who “can’t be bothered” exercising their full democratic responsibility. It’s only hours of research and 40 minutes of laborious counting once every three years, what else are you troglodytes going to do with your time? Drape your body in chicken loaf and mumble cusses at The X Factor? I think the only reason we should have above the line voting at all is so we know which ballots to burn.
But if we must stoop to those who refuse to rise, then I suppose these reforms will probably make Senate elections more democratic. The new system isn’t perfect – the fact that people’s votes can “exhaust” if they don’t number enough boxes is an issue – but it’s a lot better than what we had. The group ticket system was a labyrinthine laughing clowns machine where it was almost impossible for someone voting above the line to know where their preferences might end up. The identity of a Senator and fate of the whole country could depended on whether the Mirumbula Menshevik Party preferenced the Anti-Zoroastrian League in 26th or 27th place. And that was normally decided by skeezy preference-harvesters like Glenn Druery, the kind of guy you imagine with six different mobiles in the glovebox of his Monaro. Now, at least, more people will decide the fate of their own vote.
This was not well received by those crossbenchers who benefited from the old system. Nor was it embraced by the ALP, whose voter base is starting to look a little Green around the gills – any opportunity to portray their verdant usurpers as Liberal collaborators is not be taken lightly. Perennially moist Labor Senator Sam Dastyari was particularly scathing when he called the Greens a “cancer on progressive politics.” And although the Green’s halo-polishing insistence that they wouldn’t know a strategic power play if it dressed up in a bilby suit and sold them gluten-free trail mix is starting to get a trifle tedious, they have had this policy since 2004. As, until last year, did Labor.
One of the main argument against the reforms is that open-minded, independent Senators like Ricky Muir can’t get into office in the same way they did in 2013 (fluke). A particularly disingenuous version of this came from Guardian columnist Van Badham, who wrote:
…while everyone knows that Victoria’s Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party senator Ricky Muir won only a small number of “number 1” votes, few people appreciate that Senator Michaelia Cash from the Liberals received even less, and yet under the Greens’ proposed changes her re-election will be near guaranteed, while his will not.”
This is technically true, in the same way dihydrogen monoxide kills more people than any other poison. At the last election, 44.5% of Western Australians gave their primary vote to the Coalition in the Senate, which translated to three Senators, one of whom is Michaelia Cash. 0.51% of Victorians gave their primary vote the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, which translated to one senator, Ricky Muir. According to Badham, because fewer voters jumbled up the listed order of Liberal Party candidates below the line than voted for the MEP at all, this makes Muir’s election more legitimate, even if his party got a hundredth of the votes Cash’s did.
If I was less generous of a soul, I’d say that this argument was a cynical manipulation predicated on the reader’s ignorance of byzantine legislative minutiae. But the funny thing is that Muir is a more legitimate senator than Cash, if a senator is supposed to be a representative of the people who acts with integrity and good faith. In pursuit of a major party agenda, Badham stumbled across an uncomfortable paradox: parliamentarians who have been elected more or less by accident are often better delegates for their constituencies than career politicians who have won “fair and square” but are fundamentally compromised by the political establishment that facilitated their election. Compare and contrast:
Senator A is a lawyer who went to one of the most expensive boarding schools in Australia. One of their parents was an MP for the party they are the senator for, and they have had almost uninterrupted paid positions with that party since the age of eighteen. Senator A worked for and dated the Senator who preceded them, who had previously been in a relationship with the current deputy leader of that same party.
Senator B “spent most of (their) time as a child growing up below the poverty line.” While enrolled at a rural state school they became a teen parent. Senator B spent most of their career working in manufacturing and on farms. In 2013 they went on the dole to support their five children after the sawmill they were working for closed down.
Based on those general biographies, which of those stories most closely resembles the “average” Australian? Which of those people is more likely to understand the lives and conditions of the unemployed? Which of those people would you more trust to make informed decisions to protect Australia’s most economically vulnerable people from poverty?
Of course, Senator A is Michaelia Cash and Senator B is Ricky Muir. But it’s Cash who’s the Minister for Unemployment. It’s Cash who’s overseeing the gutting of Centrelink. And it’s Cash who Western Australians “chose” to represent them, regardless of how many of them actually knew who she was.
Not that there’s anything wrong with people with law degrees being in a law-making body. But if Parliament is supposed to even vaguely resemble a cross-section of Australian society you might expect them to make up less than 26% of MPs. You also might think that who whoever compiled this 2013 report misplaced a decimal point when they wrote that 25% of MPs have been CEOs, managers or business owners. Perhaps they should get their own bathroom in the Parliament House – after all, women do, and they’re only slightly more represented in the Senate, at 29%. In the same year, 82% of cabinet members were private school graduates, compared to fewer than half of Australians in generals. Is it any surprise that Malcolm Turnbull is considering butchering the public education?
It gets worse. Aboriginal people make up 3% of Australia’s population and 0.7% of parliamentarians, with a grand total of two. But these are unusually enlightened times – there have only been four Aboriginals in Parliament in the 115 years since Federation, or 0.2% of the 1644. Which is odd, since 115 years earlier still Aboriginal people made up 100% of the population. Every Minister for Indigenous Affairs ever has been white.
Paul Keating, Australia’s Daria Morgendorffer, famously described the Senate as “unrepresentative swill” because a vote in NSW is worth effectively a tenth of a vote in Tasmania. But he didn’t go far enough. A demographic overview of the whole Australian Parliament reveals that it is overwhelmingly a bastion of privileged elites. That’s not to make the lazy argument that there are no politicians with principles – I’ve spent dozens of hours campaigning for some, and will proudly do so again. But our political establishment is explicitly designed to protect the powerful, and it is an exceptional individual who can dice with the devil and still keep their soul relatively intact.
Because of the esoteric pre-selection hoops that have to be lept through before one can even get on the ballot for a major party, unless you’re a career politician or party apparatchik it’s almost impossible to get close to the door. And that’s nothing compared to the way our democracy is fundamentally compromised at every stage by private donors, think tanks and lobby groups. Just sniff the stench of corruption wafting from both sides of politics in New South Wales.
Combine all this with an shamelessly manipulative mass media that has one of the highest rates of ownership concentration in the developed world. What you’ve got left doesn’t have all that much meaningful resemblance to genuine democracy. What’s left is a glorified oligarchy that justifies it’s existence by attaining the dubious consent of the governed once every three years.
So I have a modest proposal: replace the ballot box with a Powerball machine.
In the history of rule-by-the-people, our Westminster system is a recent and largely unsuccessful experiment. The ancient Athenians viewed public office not as a distant right but a concrete responsibility that could be held by any citizen. Officials, from mayor to sewer attendant, were mostly decided not by corruptible election processes but sortition – the drawing of names out of a sack.
That system is good enough for picking juries and drafting soldiers during conscription. If sovereignty really lies with the people, why couldn’t we do the same for deciding who sits on local councils, or in the Senate? Imagine a House of Review selected not by the bribe-slicked gears of political machinery but pure, delirious chance.
Every family would gather around the tv once a year, waiting on tenterhooks as Bert Newton opens envelope after envelope to announce who’s going to Canberra. Oh sure, the odd Jackie Lambie might slip through, but I’d take her over a Turnbull any day. With a big enough sample size and modern statistics we could have genuine proportional representation, and maybe steer clear of the terrible pitfall that people who seek power are often those who can be trusted with it least.
Would it really be any worse than what we have now?