The accidental senators

The first sitting day of the new Senate on Monday 7th July heralded the start of a new era in Australian federal politics; an era that looks set to be shaped by arguably the least democratic Senate in modern political history.

As recent negotiations between the Abbott Government and the Palmer United Party on the carbon tax and the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) legislation have shown, Clive Palmer and his team of political novices have effectively been gifted carte blanche by our electoral system to pass and block legislation as they please. In practical terms, this means of course that legislation will be passed as Clive pleases. Under 5% of the national Senate vote was enough to deliver the mining magnate and former Queensland LNP life member three crucial cross-bench Senators and considerable sway over the balance of power.

The Palmer United Party is hardly the only beneficiary of the manipulation or “gaming” of the electoral system that has occurred in recent elections. The Liberal Democratic Party’s David Leyonhjelm, bolstered by his party’s first position on the Senate ticket in NSW and some confusion about the name of his party, was elected to the Senate despite his party receiving only 3.91% of the first preference vote nationally. Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party was elected in Victoria despite his party only receiving 0.5% of the national first preference vote. Similarly, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP)’s Senator John Madigan was elected to the Senate in Victoria in 2010 despite his party receiving only 1.06% of the national first preference vote.

There is a catalogue of injustices here: consider the conflict of interest concerns that Clive Palmer somehow magically by-passes by not being a Senator, the simple dumb luck and trickery that has seen David Leyonhjelm elected, or the dark arts exploited by preference whisperer Glenn Druery that resulted in Ricky Muir’s election. This is a collection of representatives whose political agendas and ideals were not endorsed by or likely even vaguely considered by the Australian electorate, but who have been given a greater say than they deserve by statistical circumstance and in Palmer’s case, mega-bucks. The Greens have a known agenda to those who vote for them. Labor and the Coalition (when leaders don’t change their agenda after an election) have a known agenda and ideology to those who vote for them. These Senators will arguably exercise more control over the political agenda of the country for the next couple of years than those from parties who received 10 or 20 times the number of votes as them. How can this possibly be fair?

There is still a reasonable counter-argument to be made: it is fairly widely considered by voters that the major party duopoly that Labor and the Coalition have enjoyed in modern Australian political history is bad for democracy and bad for government in Australia. One could argue that the injustices that our electoral system has allowed to occur actually have the effect of enlivening the Senate and giving voices outside the political mainstream more of a say in Australian public life. This is a worthy goal, but statistical anomalies and the “Clive Palmer effect” clearly do not represent worthy means. If we are going to encourage diversity in our electoral system, it should be less by accident than by design. Power should not be accidentally given to Australians who have the personal wherewithal to pump millions of dollars into their election campaign, creating what is effectively a shell party in support of their own personal interests and ego. Power should not be accidentally given to Australians whose only serious claim to it is that their party has a name cunningly similar to another party. Power should not accidentally be given to Australians who use statistics and dodgy deals to cheat their way to a Senate quota rather than contest an election in the spirit the AEC intends.

The Senate plays a vital role in our democracy as a house of legislative review but daftly, the Abbott Government has recently flagged that it intends to dump intended reforms to how the Senate is elected. If key positions are to be stacked with individuals and entities that have no legitimate moral claim to be there, our democracy stands to be seriously diminished.

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