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In defence of that barnyard of senate crossbenchers

By Philip Lillingston - posted Thursday, 19 September 2013


When a young, poo-flinging, unemployed revhead, a sports enthusiast, and a pro gun, drug legalising libertarian appeared to recently have won Senate seats, some of those in government, academia and the media seemed to suffer an apoplexy of rage that the hallowed halls of our Senate had been breached by micro parties of bogans and extremists. The anger was taken out on our preferential voting, proportional representation electoral system which apparently should only appoint members of larger parties who embrace acceptable policies.

The outcome of the election, described by a noted psephologist as "an amalgam of slapstick and farce" produced, according to one columnist, a "barnyard of cross benchers" who would be, because of refusing to blindly support the government's agenda, "holding the government to ransom" to quote a NSW Law Professor. (Will all the Coalition MPs be held in the Parliament house basement chained to water pipes and fed take-away pizzas throughout their ordeal?) The "unchecked, maverick element" that they are, he continued, would be producing with the government "special deals at odds with the national interest". Apparently the good professor is the arbiter of what is and isn't, in the national interest.

The alleged justification for this abuse and hyperbole derives from three aspects of the election: successful micro parties generally received only a miniscule primary vote; their supporters often were not aware who their vote eventually went to; and the luck of the draw in ballot paper position, as well as confusion in party names, favoured one of them at the expense of the Liberals.

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With ballot papers, it would seem highly hypercritical to criticise an attribute of their design, where someone is always going to have the 'donkey vote' advantage, because this time, it benefitted a party which was, so to say, not "one of us". Also, in contrast to the Liberal Party, that particular party, the Liberal Democrats, has voluntary voting on its platform.

Considering it would be very reasonable to believe that those forced to the polling booth and wishing to be in and out as quickly as possible, would be more likely to make a party identification mistake than a voluntary voter, is it not instead a "chickens coming home to roost" problem for the Liberals?

When the commentariat complain of candidates with miniscule primary votes still winning, are they aware of why Australia should be so proud to have this preferential voting system? Elsewhere in the democratic world, some questionable candidate may win the most votes while still having only a minority at say, 35%. The remaining 65% of voters are then stuck with who they see as an objectionable representative. Here, the counting goes to second, fifth and perhaps even 65th preferences until the majority can agree, albeit begrudgingly, on a compromise candidate: probably someone middle-of-the-road and non-threatening.

If that person can finally unite most of the opposing political sentiments, then why should it matter way back at the start that few people, or even no one apart from the candidate and his mother, gave him their first choice? In fact, the reason he would be successful as a compromise candidate, being bland, anodyne and harmless, is probably the same reason few would want him as their primary preference.

With regards to "a Senate that reflects the lottery effect", to quote the law professor, micro parties traditionally always listed their preferences in an ideologically consistent order, thus almost always electing the same major party, either Labor, the Coalition, or the protest third party of the day. However such preferencing rarely, if ever, gets you elected. And what did those parties do in return for your support? Ironically, to perpetuate a system that made it difficult for small parties to succeed.

Apart from recently increasing the cash deposit for Senate candidates (it is now $4,000 for a candidate and obligatory running mate to register), and granting free television time prior to elections only to parties already in parliament, they ensured candidates always needed more votes than necessary to win. Senate terms are split into two alternate six year terms, beginning every three years.

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Thus instead of a natural quota to get elected of 7.7% for every one of twelve state's senators, it becomes 14.3% when there are only six Senators per election. In time, it occurred to the micro parties that they were giving all and getting nothing in return. An alternative strategy developed for them to preference all fellow micro parties before the mainstream, thus giving each party at least a chance. Yes, it is true their supporters may be sometimes surprised with the representative they finally get, but that is a price one pays for the chance of success.

Democracy is supposed to be more than the duopoly, or triopoly, of major parties gaining power and then introducing technicalities to keep out the minorities. It is for the political representation of all, even the oddballs.

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About the Author

Philip Lillingston, has previously taught political science and now maintains the website Why Not Proportional Representation?

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Philip Lillingston

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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