Jim Middleton
Malcom Turnbull’s challenge for real voting reform

To Malcolm Turnbull, it was “a great day for democracy”. It was also a fine day for opportunism and self-interest and a job half done.

There is little doubt that the senate reforms will produce a chamber that more accurately reflects voter intentions and minimises gaming – admittedly at little cost to the Coalition in terms of representation, and greater cost to Labor. But the true test of Turnbull’s commitment to democracy would be to reform the house of representatives so that it, too, mirrored the affiliation of voters. The price there would be a reduction in Coalition representation, but it might go some way to restoring public confidence in the conduct of Australian politics, as would reform of the all-too-easily-corruptible campaign financing arrangements and the selection of party candidates.

Since 1990, with the conspicuous exception of 1993, minor parties and independents have attracted about 20 per cent of the vote nationwide in elections for the house of representatives, roughly double the figures in the years before. That means that if the voters’ wishes are to be truly reflected, as Turnbull states is his goal, then more independent and minor party MPs would be elected. Both the Coalition and the ALP would lose some seats.

The received view of democratic political strategy is that the votes are in the centre, and that is where elections are won and lost, but the decline in voters “rusted on” to the major parties has acted like a centrifuge holding them increasingly hostage to anger on the right and left. This syndrome is also reflected in the media.

Labor’s Gary Gray and the Liberals’ Ian Macfarlane sit on opposite sides of the chamber, but their friendship transcends party lines. They are about to retire and in a joint valedictory appearance on the ABC’s 7.30 lamented the current state of politics.

“Ian and I happily occupy a vigorous centre ground,” Gray said, “and I think that is where real policy debate happens and where real change happens.”

Macfarlane concurred: “Without bipartisanship, the majority don’t rule, and that is the biggest single problem.”

It certainly is as far as voters are concerned. Polling by the Lowy Institute has found persistent ambivalence, especially among the young, about the value of democracy. Last year, fewer than half of the 18 to 29-year-olds polled by Lowy declared democracy to be preferable to any other form of government. In 2012, the figure had been as low as 39 per cent.

This disenchantment appears to have risen as support for the major parties has declined. John Howard used to talk of a “40-40-20” rule, by which he meant that about 40 per cent of the electorate were loyal to each of the two major parties with the rest either unaffiliated or undecided. He now argues that it is more like a 30-30-40 rule, and that appears to have had significant consequences for political debate and behaviour.

The relationship between Gray and Macfarlane is not unique and the reality is that centrist politicians in the ALP and the Coalition have more in common with each other than they do with party colleagues on the right and left. Unfortunately for the community, the zero sum pathology of modern parliamentary politics and the ossification of party structures mean they are unable to exploit the natural centrist majority within the electorate to agree on bipartisan solutions to policy stalemates on major issues, notably climate change and asylum seekers, but also on same-sex marriage and the republic, for example.

The most contentious of Labor’s economic reforms of the Hawke years had the bipartisan support of the Coalition; Howard risked his political future by taking his GST to the voters. These are lessons apparently forgotten by Australia’s current political leadership.

Mass membership of political parties in Australia has collapsed with the consequence that their behaviour has become more sectarian. Instead of having the ballast that encouraged them towards the centre, party apparatchiks now worry about clinging on to members who increasingly represent the edges rather than the mainstream.

Take the case of Sophie Mirabella, whose unpopularity meant she lost the seat of Indi to independent Cathy McGowan at the 2013 election. Now the Liberal rank and file have given her another shot, a resurrection ascribed by one senior Victorian Liberal only to the fact that “all the preselectors were over 80”. An exaggeration born of despair, perhaps, but he had a point.

On the other side of the fence, Labor hardheads worry about a post-election leadership ballot under the rules bestowed on his party as a parting poison pill by Kevin Rudd should Bill Shorten not win government. They look at the Corbyn experiment in Britain, where Labor members followed up the disaster of failing to win office by installing a leader further left than Ed Miliband.

As voter loyalty to the major parties weakens and their membership slides, they have perversely become more dependent on their paymasters: the unions for Labor and big business for the Coalition.

Corruption has been the consequence of Australia’s porous laws on political donations, with New South Wales the most notorious example. Political leaders simply spend too much time with the begging bowl out at fundraising dinners or listening to the demands of an ever increasing array of rent seekers trying to raid the public purse. It would be time better spent developing policy for the benefit of the whole community.

However, regardless of the flaws in the glass exposed by Gray and Macfarlane, a structural realignment of the established parties is unlikely without further change to the voting system.

This is now a generic problem confronting the English-speaking democracies, from Britain with its Miliband, Corbyn and Brexit spinouts to the United States convulsed by Donald Trump’s poujadiste insurgency and on to Canada where the voters eviscerate the ruling party every decade or so.

Only in New Zealand is sensible centrism ascendant, where a more representative mixed-member proportional voting system has forced negotiation and compromise to trump the fait accompli tactics of the past. The result of the electoral reforms introduced across the Tasman two decades ago has been two quality and long-term prime ministers in a row, Helen Clark followed by John Key. Essential policy changes on tax and climate change, for instance, have been introduced with the minimum of fuss and without the slogans of hysteria that have slaughtered similar initiatives in Australia.

In supporting the senate changes, the Greens have traded short-term disadvantage for long-term benefit. They may lose seats in South Australia and Western Australia, but having established a beachhead in the senate they have now mined the sands behind them. It will take about half a quota – about 8 per cent at a regular senate election, four-ish in a double dissolution – to have a shot at winning a seat. It is a task beyond most micro-parties present and future.

But if the barriers to senate entry have been too low, they remain too high in the house of representatives. And there is a choice here, if Turnbull means what he said when he told the house “there is nothing more important than that the men and women who sit in this chamber and in the senate reflect, as far as possible, the wish of the Australian people”.

If that principle were applied to the house, the number of independents and minor party representatives would multiply exponentially. The Coalition would still be the biggest contingent, but without a majority. That would force a regime of negotiation either between the big battalions or between the government and the minor parties.

The violence of the hung parliament years between 2010 and 2013 was a consequence of the view that it was an illegitimate aberration, obscuring the fact that it passed more legislation than the Abbott and Turnbull governments.

The current tightening in the opinion polls suggests another hung parliament is a real possibility. Better it be the result of a voting system that more closely reflects voter intentions. All voters would have greater ownership of the result, making it less credible to argue that arrangements such as the deals between Julia Gillard, the Greens and independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor in 2010 are illegitimate and a betrayal of voter expectations.

A regime that makes minority governments the norm might just moderate the temper of political behaviour as established parties vie to attract votes in the centre rather than pander to the edges. Public respect for the practice of politics may even be restored.

Given Australia’s tradition of electorate-based representation, strict proportional representation is not the answer. Loath as Australians are to acknowledge anything of value across the ditch, New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional arrangements should provide a compromise that would win the respect of the electorate and the prospect of better government.

Mixed-member proportional is a mixture of geographical electorates and members elected according to their party’s national vote. As a consequence, it comes close to reflecting the will of the voters.

If Turnbull is genuinely concerned about the quality of Australian democracy, he should put his money where his mouth is and finish the job. If the senate changes benefit the Coalition, risking a few seats in the house to produce more civilised government and re-engage voters with the political system would be a true acknowledgement of his commitment. There is no greater test of commitment to principle than the cost that comes with it. Turnbull has had a win on the swings, now it’s time for the roundabouts.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2016 as "Taking proportions".

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Jim Middleton is a Sky News correspondent and vice-chancellor’s fellow at Melbourne University.

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