First let's reform the Senate ….

My brother-in-law in Brooklyn says he likes my architecture and planning pieces, I think he figures that after 50 years I just might have learnt a thing or two.  But he doesn't value my political pieces nearly as much, they are, he says,  'just another opinion'.  And in any case, if like me you are sick and tired of the low quality of everything to do with the recent Federal election, why add to the relentless, vapid day-to-day commentary? 

But the lamentable level of our politics is not just an opinion, it's an awful fact, and there are real lessons to be learnt from the last election that would simply make our Parliament more efficient and more democratic as well as cheaper. 
I've written about these issues before, (read my earlier 'It's broke so let's fix it') and I don't want to bore everyone by repeating myself but I think it's important and the changes set out below would all be easy to implement if we could just stop shopping and pay attention for a moment.

 Voters are more disillusioned with politicians than politics.  People are as concerned as ever about the things that affect their lives but they aren't being given much choice of either good ideas or good people to vote for. And part of the problem is that there isn't that much difference between the major parties; we need better people to create better policies.

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 The Senate:  The recent election has rightly focussed attention on the Senate, where twenty parties contested the ballot in Victoria in the hope of having 'the balance of power'.   The ballot paper was a metre long and one candidate, who only gained around a thousand primary votes was elected after preferences were allocated.   That's taking what Paul Keating once called 'unrepresentative swill' to a new level of being unrepresentative, and happens when there are so many single issue parties that most people vote above the line, and this in turn allows preference swaps to come up with bizarre results.

The basic problem is that the Senate is too big and restricts its function to reviewing legislation passed in the lower house.  The Federation fathers saw the Senate as a states house that would represent state interests against those of the big bad Commonwealth, and Tom Jefferson had the same concerns in the US.

And occasionally there is still a place for this role when issues like the future of the Murray-Darling River System are at stake, and it can also act as a brake on newly elected governments proposing payback legislation like Work Choices.  But 99% of the time since Federation, the Senate has simply divided on party lines over the legislation passed by the lower house.

There aren't many incentives for the main political parties to change a system that they know how to game to their advantage, so don't hold your breath that they will take any action.  However the new government will need support from independents in the Senate to enact controversial legislation like the removal of the Carbon Tax, so the possibility of them using the balance of power to bring about electoral change is an opportunity too good to miss.  

We need a considered public conversation about:

•  Whether to reduce the size of the Senate from 76 to 46 senators, that is seven senators from each state plus two senators from each of the ACT and the Northern Territory.   And some commentators have proposed adding an extra senator for Australia's overseas diaspora, a surprisingly large 5% of the population.2

•  Whether the system of half senate elections should be continued, OR whether the whole Senate should be elected every four years but still two years out of phase with the House of Representatives. 

•  In view of the fact that the Senate does not operate as a States house, consider whether it would be fairer NOT to have an equal representation from each state, and whether the numbers of senators should be related to a certain number of voters (as in electorates), so that the smaller states for example, would have less senators than the more populous states.  Alas this option might require a hard-to-pass referendum.

•  Consider the best way for preferences to be allocated to avoid the current preference imbroglio with small single-issue parties; Senator Xenaphon has already made sensible suggestions in this regard. 

•  The role of the Senate should also be changed so that as well as passing legislation forwarded from the lower house, it should concentrate on considering and refining policy options and having committees that investigate things and tease out issues in the way the US senate does.  The Senate should become an investigative, policy power house, finding and refining as much bipartisan agreement on the solutions to our problems as possible based on good arguments, something badly needed as the whole fiasco over Holden has shown 1

•  To preserve the separateness of the Senate and its new role, senators should NOT be given ministry portfolios in the government.  Penny Wong for example, would have to move to the lower house if she wanted to be a minister in a future government.

•  Whether voting, and the counting of votes, should be done electronically has been raised following the loss of a few thousand ballot papers in Western Australia and the possibility of a repeat election. There is not much evidence that a different system would guarantee anything and it's a serious move that doesn't just apply to the Senate.  By all means investigate whether our system could be improved but don't tie it to reform of the Senate itself.

Fixed electoral terms:  Every Australian knows the Melbourne Cup is at 3pm on the first Tuesday in November.  The next US Presidential election will be held on Tuesday 8th November 2016, the US Congress has elections every two years and the US Senate every six years, both of them always on the first Tuesday in November in even years.

If the Americans can decide these things in advance why can't we?  We should have fixed four year parliamentary terms and cut out the stupid political game playing that goes on before elections.  As long as the majority party has the numbers in the Lower House they should be obligated to serve the full four year term.

The current Federal parliament is elected for three year terms and the Prime Minister has the power to decide when the election should be held.  This gives the government an unfair advantage, most of them don't see out the full three years and in any case three years is simply too short.  As the joke has it they spend the first year finding their way around and paying off electoral promises, six months proposing new legislation and the rest of the term worrying about getting re-elected!  Six months or a year is too short a time for real policy making in each electoral cycle

All the States and Territories except Queensland and Tasmania already have fixed terms of four years.  The change was brought about in NSW a few years ago when it was the price for the support of independents holding the balance of power.  Let's hope that this happens again. 

And the recent loss of 1375 ballot papers in the WA senate election, with no one able to decide whether they were deliberately removed or accidentally thrown out with the rubbish, has provided another reason for fixed terms.   Holding a Federal election is no mean feat in an organisational sense; it requires hiring, training and mobilis-ing around 80,000 temporary staff to run more than 9000 polling booths, to print and distribute 43 million ballot papers AND most of this work has to be done within the 33 or so days after the election is called.  If the date is floating it compounds the problems of the Electoral Commission in organising such a complex logistical exercise; fixed terms and dates would aid the integrity of the process and time to organise elections.

This reform seems to me to so sensible and straightforward that it hardly bears debating as most of the States have already found, so let's just do it!

Primary elections to select better candidates:   A good part of our problem is the calibre of our politicians and even more, the way they are selected.  People who have real life skills and experience in the real world are badly needed to cope with the uncommon problems that confront us. There are some great people in the parliaments of course, and although we're all quick to criticize, we must acknowledge that politicians have a largely thankless task.  But in general parliamentarians come from such narrow and self-perpetuating groups as the staffs of politicians, party apparatchiks, trade unions, industry bodies and the legal profession, and we can only vote for the candidates preselected by faceless people (mostly men) hidden in the inner core of each party. 

The Greens are different as they still have active branches with active members but most branches of the two major parties atrophied long ago.  Most people would not want to spend years in such a life-sapping environment as a party branch in order to get endorsement to stand for parliament?  A very small in-group selects who will appear on the ballot papers, and for all the above reasons I've become convinced that a more democratic system of open primary pre-selection like that used in the USA is worth trying. 

 Our system favors uninspiring insiders rather than dynamic and interesting candidates from outside the party, and I'm convinced this change would invigorate the selection process and in turn, the parliamentary debate and policies.  Based on the US experience, over time up to 50% of the voters in any one electorate could be involved in pre-selecting better local candidates for the party of their choice.  Julia Gillard floated a similar idea in 2011 as a reaction to the poor electoral performance of her party, although she proposed that pre-selection should be by paid up party and union members; it wasn't as democratic as my proposal that pre-selection should be made by voters who register as supporters of a particular party, and of course it was all talk and nothing has happened.

 Recently the Labor Party has made a start to liberalise the way the parliamentary leader is chosen by involving rank and file party members.   We need to go further and have primary elections in all seats to select the best candidates.  Voters in individual electorates should be given the option to be registered as a Labor or Liberal voter without formally joining the party.  When an election comes around, potential candidates can put their names forward and voters who have registered for each party can select the candidates they prefer to represent them in the elections.  Voters shouldn't have to be paid up party members simply to be registered as regular party voters. This is the way to get better quality people into parliament and helps reduce the hidden role of all those faceless party functionaries.

 Again the details of exactly how all this might work should be open to debate.   But we need to have the debate and make proposals that the electorate can endorse at the next election.  And there are a lot of other quite straightforward reforms that need to be debated, how financial donations to political parties should be managed to start with.  I don't want to go on and on, there are a lot of opinions and I'm open to changing mine, what is important is that we have a debate and make changes to improve the ailing body politic.

Australia was once known for its progressive attitudes.  Women were granted the vote here some thirty years before either the United States or Great Britain; we were the first country to introduce a system of compulsory voting (on the basis that with the rights of citizenship came responsibilities), we pioneered the secret ballot and implemented a preferential voting system to rank candidates.   We were once regarded as a 'democratic laboratory' but all that was a long time ago and we seem to have lost the will to continue this tradition. 

It really isn't working very well, so let's fix it!

Don Gazzard
November 2013

1:   See Imagining Australia: Ideas for our Future (Allen& Unwin 2004)
      by Macgregor Duncan, Andrew Leigh, David Madden and Peter Tynan.

2:  The Australia diaspora was estimated to be 1 million in 2004, the equivalent of the population of Perth or Adelaide, and greater than the combined population of Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory.  At present, Australians living overseas can vote in their previous electorate for six years after leaving, then they have to apply every year if they want to vote.   The authors of this book propose giving them a senate seat but to disqualify them from voting in the Reps.