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.

Borgen and the third party fantasy/fallacy

These days the English, believe it or not, are looking east and a bit north for their quality television; to Denmark, præcis. Fresh on the footsteps of the noir crime drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen), come The Bridge, and Borgen, a political drama that might well feel tantalisingly utopian for viewers living in staid Western democracies around the world. The first season of Borgen tells the story of a charismatic, principled female leader of the minority Moderate Party who manages to break the big party stranglehold in Denmark to lead a coalition of parties as Prime Minister. It is, simply put, The West Wing for the post-noughties generation. Who wants to watch the humdrum story of a principled Democrat and his team fighting for and gaining office when a lot of the real action, inspiration and colour in modern politics sprouts from the backblocks of community organising in much smaller parties?

With all the water that has passed under the bridge in recent decades, from the centre-left’s embrace of economic liberalism & New Labour’s “principled” invasion of Iraq, to the seeming predilection of conservative parties for high defence spending, “big government” and politicised social welfare, what normal, rational person doesn’t occasionally dream of a democracy where the major parties get a taste of their just desserts?

The “third party” or outsider fantasy that Borgen depicts is not so much of a stretch for Danish politics, where the government is regularly lead by coalitions of smaller parties; but it does remain a stretch for most of the rest of us. The Westminster breed of government and certainly a fair proportion of the adversarial electoral systems that are prominent internationally are structurally configured to encourage big, powerful parties at the expense of smaller ones. The United States remains the textbook case; an ironclad bastion of major parties, albeit with a Republican Party wracked with internal division courtesy of the evangelical Right and the Tea Party movements. Will we see a President of the United States who is not either a Democrat or a Republican in our lifetimes? Almost certainly not.

In the United Kingdom, of course, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are two years into their warm embrace of the Conservatives in government; they are finding that the embrace is slowly suffocating them. In local elections this week, the Lib Dems lost 329 of their 767 councillors. Since the 2010 election, support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen from 22% to 11% in a recent YouGov poll, behind even the somewhat barmy UK Independence Party (Ukip). Everyone with a bit of conscience who cared about democracy “agreed with Nick” in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who do so now. It was inordinately fashionable to agree with Nick back then – even The Guardian editorialised in support of the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Now the Lib Dems have the look of a party sleepwalking towards disaster when the next national election swings around, unless some drastic changes can be made to the way they are doing business with their Tory masters.

In Australia, we’ve had our momentary dalliances with minor parties in the last couple of decades, but only impressionable students, members of the Greens, or the pharmaceutically inspired could argue that Labor and the Liberal Party are significantly waning in terms of support at elections more than they are waxing. Tony Abbott is leading the Liberals with a civilisation-crushing 51% of the primary vote, according to Newspoll; Labor may be in the doldrums at the moment on 27%, but then they have been doing a bit of foot-shooting of late and Julia Gillard is well and truly on the nose in suburbia. The Greens have showed quite an admirable level of staying power over the course of the last decade, consistently sitting at 10% or thereabouts, but arguably, Australia’s close relationship with George Bush’s Republican administration in the first half of the noughties and Bob Brown’s recent resignation may have seen their political high watermark come and go. Bob Brown was always a fairly dignified, relatively likable figure, enjoying a not inconsiderable media profile. Christine Milne, and/or whoever follows her is going to find it desperately difficult to “maintain the rage” whilst maintaining and growing their current fledgling level of support nationally. The fate of the Democrats, another worthy minor party, hangs heavily on the shoulders of would-be innovators in the Australian political scene.

For us, the Brits and the Americans, Borgen is just a twinkling of utopia; it tells the story of a place that our own countries, at least without a drastic and unlikely overhaul of our respective political systems, simply cannot be. There is more than a dash of “grass is always greener” about this, of course. Danish viewers of Borgen would – let’s not kid ourselves – probably snort derisively at any suggestion that their decidedly multilateral incarnation of parliamentary democracy is necessarily something to covet. The often brutal level of compromise and imperfection that modern democracy delivers in spades, regardless of which political party is in office, is not something that anybody yet really has the answer to. Canberra, Westminster and Washington, for many, feel so distant and so alien that they may as well orbit Alpha Centauri, for all the good they do and all the meaning they have in people’s everyday lives.

But yet, through the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and yes, the British National Party, our collective “third party” fantasy lives on. Unless this fantasy transforms itself into an organised movement for electoral reform however, it will remain a fallacious mirage: a distraction from the far more profound structural problems that so bedevil democracy in the 21st century.

Major parties and minor parties at the end of the day are playing the same game by the same rules, and sadly, it’s a damn sight easier and sexier to make a few more little, largely ignorable chips off the old block than to think about fashioning a whole new block.