16 June 2012

Opinion - Is it time to scrap proportional voting for the Senate?

Our Senate needs to change. It is sucking the life out of good government in the 21st century. The fact that some decisions in the Senate these days are decided by independents, or minor parties with less than 10% of the vote, is not democratic in the least. Legislation is sometimes held up by a couple of Senators just because they think it’s “best for the country”. This is nothing of the sort. These Senators are, in reality, looking out for their own skin while at the same time trying to make themselves look relevant.

For example is former Family First Senator Steve Fielding who suggested that he “would block supply” if another election was not held within a few of weeks of the 2010 federal election. Of course this had nothing to do with the fact that Fielding had lost his Senate seat and that his time in the Senate was about to expire. He simply wanted another election all for the sake of having another chance of being re-elected. Or take the Greens who joined the Liberals to block the ETS in the Senate and then had the hypocrisy to campaign at the next election with the slogan “We won’t backflip on an ETS”.
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating hit the nail on the head when he once famously described the Senate as “unrepresentative swill” because Senators like Stephen Fielding can be elected with just 2% of the primary vote.
To read the remainder of this article please click here


  1. While I can appreciate your sense that minor parties are a frustration to a government fully realising its policy agenda, the suggestion to adopt boundaries for Senate seats that are geographically based will not address the core issue - as you rightly suggest, the cause of minor party success in the Senate is proportional representation (PR). Even then, abolishing PR has the potential to provide untrammelled power to the government of the day.

    While you allude to John Howard's eventual defeat as a result of Workchoices, unchecked power is a bad thing, regardless of which party holds power. A case in point is the current Queensland Parliament, which can pretty much do whatever it wants for at least 3 and likely 6 years without any real fear of being booted out.

    The real solution is for Labor to offer policies that voters deem warrants their support for Labor candidates in both the lower and upper houses. I don't have data to hand, but I suspect the proportion of voters who vote strategically (i.e. Greens in Senate and Labor in House of Reps) would be low. It isn't likely the abolition of PR or the creation of geographically discrete Senate seats would cause these voters to change their voting behaviour; however, I do see your point, in that Labor would be likely to be the ultimate recipient of such votes under a non-PR arrangement.

    Additionally, while I agree the current Greens' stance on many policies is obstructionist, you can't reasonably blame the Senate composition for the failure of Rudd to secure passage of the CPRS. It was at least equally caused by bad management of the legislative process.

    All told, I think your article takes a somewhat blinkered view and dilutes the focus on ensuring Labor offers compelling policies and conducts legislative negotiations effectively, to both achieve its agenda and enable smaller parties to offer some constraints on the absolute power of government.

    1. Geoff thank you for your feedback. While I agree it is up to Labor to offer solid policy to win voters in the senate and lower house it can only do what is realistic. The Greens are a party of protest who have the luxury of being able to say anything to cannibalize Labor vote. This included Labor's suggestion before 2007 election of 60% reduction emissions by 2050 only being trumped by Bob Brown who suggested it should be 80% by 2050.

      The Greens are in the business of winning votes and creating policy that differs with Labor at any cost is large part of their strategy which includes blocking legislation for demonstration of political relevance even when it is at the expense of practical solutions which has left the Labor government in a "stale mate".

      Also my belief is that you elect governments to govern. The process of negotiations governments has with minor parties have led to legislation being watered down for the worse of the progressive cause. This included the Greens refusing to compromise on the original ETS which led to Labor having to negotiate with the then led Liberals Malcolm Turnbull on the ETS which led to Labor's ETS being stripped down and amended to what some would call a "dog's breakfast".

      Also governments don't necessary have "untrammeled" power as the High Court offers a certain amount of protection for some of the checks and balances that you refer to in your comments.

  2. Your view that "You elect governments to govern" plays right into the hands of Tony Abbott. It is not just through the Senate that Labor needs to carefully negotiate the path of legislation; as you know, it is also essential in the House of Reps at the moment.

    Any government (Labor or Liberal) needs to deal with the reality of the political environment. That means making reasonable adjustments to its program in order to secure support from minor parties or independents. The alternative proposition (virtually untrammelled government power) is the much less attractive alternative. I agree the High Court offers some, albeit limited, protection from such outcomes. However, as we saw with Workchoices, there is a treasure trove of nastiness that can be successfully prosecuted through Parliament without any High Court intervention.

    I'm convinced that underlying support for the Greens would reduce if the policy direction and narrative of Labor was principled, clearly articulated and consistently achieved (being pragmatic as to some of the detail in order to secure passage). There will always be a protest vote, and there will always be people whose genuine beliefs are further to the left than a mainstream party can abide. However, offering a credible and ambitious program, held together with a convincing raison d'ĂȘtre, would go a long way to eliminating the worst impacts that you discern in the proportional representation system of election to the Senate.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share my views; your post was thought provoking and interesting.