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Tony Abbott has a gun pointed at the senate: a chance to fix preference systems that advantage minor parties, then rush to a double dissolution. By Sophie Morris.

Abbott government plans to be rid of senate ’ferals’

Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm.
Credit: AAP Image

The subject line on the media alert from Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm read as both a threat and a promise: “A feral crossbench? You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

His email lobbed just after lunch on Wednesday, minutes before the publication of the final report by parliament’s Joint standing committee on electoral matters on the 2013 federal election.

Even before glimpsing the report’s contents, the senate’s libertarian provocateur was poised to pounce and denounce its findings.

There are plenty of juicy titbits in the report, including the alarming observation that 1370 votes in Western Australia may have literally fallen “off the back of a truck” or been disposed of with rubbish.

But the main game in the current parliament is senate voting reform that would stymie the election of micro-parties, which rely on byzantine preference flows rather than direct voter endorsement.

The committee had already, in an interim report last May, forged rare tripartisan support for these proposals, but any changes are fiercely opposed by most crossbenchers, with the notable exception of Nick Xenophon.

Business leaders, who are urging politicians to show courage to pursue unpopular reforms, are also pushing for the voting overhaul to prevent a repeat of the 2013 senate election outcome, which saw a gaggle of disparate crossbenchers handed the power to decide the fate of legislation.

“The credibility of the senate and the political process is on the line when there is a system to elect senators that can be gamed and throws up results that don’t genuinely reflect the views of the electorate,” says Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox.

“There is always going to be a place for well-supported independent voices in the senate. But when there is important economic reform at stake, as there so often is, it can’t be left to the sort of ballot bingo that the current system allows for.”

Double dissolution possibiity

It is an existential issue for Leyonhjelm and those other crossbenchers who secured a six-year senate seat with a minuscule primary vote.

And it becomes even more pressing when overlayed with the spectre of a possible double dissolution election if the government, fed up with an obstructionist upper house, dares to send the full senate and the house of representatives to the polls.

Normally, a double dissolution might increase the chances of micro-parties being elected, as the quota to secure a senate seat is halved in a full-senate election.

But this risk could be reduced by the voting reforms recommended by the joint standing committee. The exception might be Xenophon’s new eponymous party, which would almost certainly pick up at least one extra seat based on his huge personal popularity in South Australia.

There is mounting frustration from some committee members that the government has not yet acted on its interim report, which was deliberately delivered early to allow time for legislation.

Now the government is under pressure to respond to the final report, but may be loath to antagonise crossbenchers whose support it still needs to pass not only stalled measures from the last budget but also new items that will be unveiled in this year’s budget on May 12.

The special minister of state Michael Ronaldson gave an anodyne response to the report, promising the government would “fully examine the committee’s findings”. Even so, some government MPs believe it is a matter of when, not if, the changes are legislated.

The committee’s chairman, Liberal MP Tony Smith, dismisses crossbench anger, saying the current system, relying on group voting tickets, is flawed and distorting the will of large numbers of voters.

“The ‘gaming’ of the voting system by many micro-parties created a lottery, where, provided the parties stuck together in preferencing each other – some of whom have polar opposite policies and philosophies – the likelihood of one succeeding was maximised,” he says.

“The system of senate elections should be reformed to restore full power to the voter. Far from disenfranchising voters, as some claim, this would empower voters to decide their own preferences instead of signing them over to parties. There could be nothing more open and democratic than giving preferencing power directly back to voters – something no senate candidate seeking genuine electoral support should be afraid of.”

The possibility of a double dissolution has been discussed at the highest levels of government. Given the government’s difficulties in securing senate approval for key measures and the fact it already has two triggers lined up and a third on the way, it would be extraordinary if a double dissolution had not been canvassed. But there are no concrete plans and several possible scenarios.

These range from an election later this year, if the government’s polling improves after the budget and if it feels it has wrung all it can out of the senate, to leaving it until later in the term and then using a double dissolution to clean out the crossbenches. Seven of the eight crossbench senators are still in the first year of six-year terms and would, in normal circumstances, continue to wield influence beyond the next election.

Scrapping senate tickets

The final report makes other recommendations, including extra training for Australian Electoral Commission managers after the debacle of the lost votes forced the senate election rerun in Western Australia and resulted in the resignation of both the electoral commissioner Ed Killesteyn and the WA state manager.

The committee also considered evidence of multiple voting, including that three people in NSW had voted 15 times, 12 times and 10 times. The Coalition’s solution is voter identification checks, but Labor and the Greens argue that lower turnout when this was introduced for the Queensland state election shows it could disenfranchise thousands of disadvantaged voters.

Another interim report last year rejected calls for electronic voting, arguing it was expensive and vulnerable to hacking.

But the committee’s most significant and politically delicate findings still relate to senate voting. It recommends scrapping group voting tickets, to abolish the opaque preference deals that have distorted senate results.

Under the committee’s proposals, those choosing to vote “above the line” could allocate preferences to as many or as few parties as they wished. Those casting their vote “below the line”, for individuals rather than groups, would need to number six boxes at a regular half-senate election or 12 at a double dissolution, rather than every single box, which can run to more than 100.

In NSW, the list of 44 parties and 110 candidates was so long and the print so small that the AEC had to hand out magnifying sheets along with the senate ballot paper.

The committee also proposed lifting the number of unique members that new parties would need to sign up, from 500 to 1500, to prevent pop-up parties that exist only to harvest and funnel preferences to other outfits.

Deputy chairman of the committee, Labor MP Alan Griffin, says that, with the next federal election due by mid-January 2017, the government has little time to lose if it is serious about pursuing the changes.

“The government should be acting on these recommendations and, if they’re going to, they need to hurry up because they’re running out of time,” says Griffin.

“There will be a need to educate the community. And the AEC will have to implement any changes to the electoral system, and that may not be as simple as it sounds.”

A spokesman for the AEC says it has not yet undertaken detailed work to prepare for the proposed changes but that they would require a “comprehensive implementation approach by the AEC”.

Leyonhjelm reacts

Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, a member of the committee, also supports the changes, which mirror reforms introduced in NSW in 1991. “The important thing is that the voters determine preferences, not backroom deals,” she says.

Although Leyonhjelm is hinting at more “feral” behaviour, the very threat of the overhaul could be used to nudge crossbenchers to consider co-operation with the government, rather than risk annihilation.

It was a bizarre congruence of events that led to Leyonhjelm’s election.

Not only did he score first position on the crowded NSW senate ballot paper, he also benefited from confused voters who mistook his party for the Liberals.

The LDP won some 434,000 votes or 9.5 per cent of the vote in NSW, which was 50 times the vote it attracted in 2007, before adopting the name “Liberal Democrats”. Now he is in a dispute with the Liberals at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal over use of that name.

He says the committee’s proposals are “like the Coles and Woolworths of Australian politics deciding to abolish corner shops”.

As to how the senate could get more feral, he says there are options ranging from the “full Lambie”, of blocking all government bills, to just being generally disruptive and “not giving them the benefit of the doubt”.

He is more inclined to the latter than the former, saying he could not embrace the complete obstruction that Jacqui Lambie tried on defence force pay, as he would still need, on principle, to support any legislation that reduced taxes.

Government's difficulties with the crossbench

Independent John Madigan, who in 2010 became the first Democratic Labour Party senator in 40 years after securing 2.3 per cent of the vote, has accused the big parties of acting like a “cartel” to stifle any competition.

But perhaps the most thoughtful defence of the status quo came from motoring enthusiast Ricky Muir, the unlikely politician who made it into the senate with just over 17,000 votes, a tiny 0.51 per cent of the vote cast in Victoria.

“Since I was elected, there has been plenty of commentary on how the voting system is broken and undemocratic, which in my eyes completely misses the point,” he said in his first speech, which he finally delivered in March.

“For my crossbench colleagues and I to be elected, people had to be voting for parties other than the major parties, and they did – a huge 24 per cent in the senate. In my view, if you want a simple explanation of how this could occur, all the major parties need to do is to take a long, hard look in the mirror. I can tell you now: the system is not broken and does not need to be fixed. The disconnect from the average Australian, the way you treat the voters of Australia by saying one thing but doing another, is, in my view, why voters are looking for alternatives.”

When speculation last flared in mid-March about a possible double dissolution election it coincided with Prime Minister Tony Abbott describing the senate as “feral” in his weekly address to the Coalition party room.

Though Abbott later claimed he was referring to Labor and the Greens, it’s an epithet that Leyonhjelm relishes.

He points out the government is currently courting support from him and other crossbenchers for its bid to slash the renewable energy target. In the past week he has also been briefed by Social Services Minister Scott Morrison on his proposed overhaul of childcare.

While Morrison seems to have got the hang of wrangling crossbench support, whether through consultation or the sort of arm-twisting he deployed on immigration legislation last year, others such as Christopher Pyne have had less success.

When Pyne reintroduces his higher education legislation in the months ahead, it is expected to once again be defeated, adding it to two double dissolution triggers the government already has on bills relating to the abolition of the carbon tax and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

But the government’s senate ledger is not all failure. It did secure crossbench support for the axing of the carbon tax, the mining tax and the passage of its Direct Action policy. Deals with Labor delivered the deficit levy, a reduction in the income limit for family tax benefits and a freeze on the childcare rebate. Still, other welfare changes are stalled and some items, such as the controversial GP co-payment, were killed off before they even made it into the senate.

As Abbott this week completed his backdown from his “signature” paid parental leave policy, confirming the levy on big business would not go ahead, he was making every effort to reassure families they would be spared in this year’s budget.

With the prime minister paying close attention to the prospects of any legislation passing the senate, the voting overhaul outlined by Smith’s committee is one measure that should have no problem securing broad support.

The kicker is that it might jeopardise all other deals with the crossbench but, in combination with a double dissolution, it might also seal their fate.

Abbott now has that card in his hands. There is growing interest in whether he will dare to play it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2015 as "The ‘cartel’ plan to kill senate ferals". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.