Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to change the way people vote in Senate elections has triggered a complex political fight.
It is designed to stop micro-parties winning seats through harvesting preferences, and ensure fewer cross-bench Senators are elected in future. Senators like Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party, elected in Victoria in 2013 with just 479 primary votes, would be wiped out.
If passed, it is likely that only the Coalition, Labor, the Greens and Nick Xenophon would win Senate seats.
The Liberals are proposing that voters be allowed to allocate preferences between party lists above the line, and that those who vote below the line would not need to number every box.
Parties would not be able to lock in preference flows, meaning that someone voting 1 above the line could no longer find that their vote had trickled down to a party they opposed.
The change is supported by the Coalition, the Greens and Nick Xenophon. It is opposed by Labor, the micro parties in the current senate, and the union movement.
Meanwhile, the debate about electoral process has become enmeshed in Turnbull’s drive to bring back the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission, introduced by John Howard and abolished by Julia Gillard.
The aim of the ABCC is to terrorise construction union officials and members through the threat of jail and major fines.
As Professor George Williams of the University of NSW put it: “The ABCC can force people to answer questions in secret … disobeying is punishable by six months in jail …
“A person can be compelled to hand over personal phone and email records, reveal memberships of a union or political party, and report on private meetings.”
Turnbull is claiming that the reintroduction of the ABCC is of vital importance—so important that he’s prepared to call a double dissolution election.
His problem is that at a double dissolution election, all Senators are up for election, reducing the vote needed to win a seat to just over 7 per cent, rather than the normal 14 per cent.
So he has rushed through Senate reform, to guarantee that no micro party sneaks in to frustrate his plans.
But Turnbull is prepared to be flexible if it helps his anti-union agenda. He hinted to the micro party senators that they might save their parliamentary careers if they passed the ABCC legislation that they, Labor and the Greens have blocked in the senate.
The Greens are now paying a terrible price for collaborating with the Liberals on Senate reform in the spirit of leader Richard Di Natale’s pragmatism.
They showed that they were willing to risk the micro party Senators cracking under Turnbull’s pressure and passing the ABCC legislation, which they oppose, in order to get Senate reform.
And if Turnbull goes for a double dissolution election, the Liberals can then pass the ABCC legislation at a joint sitting of both houses of parliament, an option available to deal with blocked legislation after a double dissolution.
The electoral reforms may be more democratic, because they stop micro parties winning seats by accident as a result of backroom preference deals.
But The Greens are also driven by their desire for greater control of the balance of power in the Senate for themselves, through cleaning out the cross-bench.
Labor is concerned that the majority of votes that currently go to micro parties will find their way to the Liberals, costing Labor seats and benefiting the conservatives.
The ACTU, meanwhile, called on The Greens to, at a minimum, postpone the vote on Senate reform until May 12, when it would have been too late to call a double dissolution election.
ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver told The Australian that the union movement was concerned about a “raft of anti-worker legislation” should the laws be used to clear out the Senate crossbench.
Oliver is right to worry. But he should also remember that the union movement has defended itself best from attacks – whether in the Maritime Union of Australia dispute of 1998 or while facing WorkChoices in 2006-07 – when workers have taken to the streets and the picket lines.
The Senate is a fundamentally conservative institution, technically there to represent the rights of the states but in practice established – like all upper houses – to act as a brake on a potentially radical lower house.
Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating was right on the money when he described the Senate as “unrepresentative swill”.
Tinkering with the voting mechanisms will not change that fundamental fact.
By David Glanz