How Quickly They Forget: Greens Look To Wipe Out Independents, Minor Parties in Senate Voting Reform

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The Australian Greens are proposing legislation to change the Senate voting system, to wipe out independents and minor parties. How quickly they forget, writes Peter Breen.

Independents and minor party representatives were pervasive at Canberra’s constitutional convention in 1998. Some of us in the convention wings with time on our hands sat for hours outside the parliamentary offices of the Australian Democrats senators trying to get crossbench support for a popularly elected head of state – a bad idea at the time that ended up scuttling the republic referendum a year later.

Minor parties wanting to talk to the Democrats included the Australian Greens who had won a seat at the convention on the back of preference deals with other minor parties including the Australian Women’s Party, the Indigenous Peoples’ Party and my Bill of Rights Group.

The eight Democrats senators sitting on the crossbench in 1998 made a decision not to talk to independents and minor parties, since they regarded the Greens as serious rivals with Bob Brown already making a name for himself in the Senate.

Fast forward to today and the Democrats are nowhere to be seen, while the Australian Greens occupy 10 seats on the Senate crossbench.

Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale.
Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale.

Like the Democrats before them, the Greens now refuse point blank to talk with independents and minor parties worried about changes to the Senate voting system. Several minor parties just this week tried without success to talk with Greens leader Richard Di Natale.

In June this year, the Australian Greens National Council made a decision to introduce its own legislation to change the Senate voting system if the Coalition government failed to proceed with recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

Minor parties and independents will be decimated by the proposed changes, which will effectively abolish preferential voting and turn Senate voting into a first-past-the-post system which favours the Coalition.

Most independents and minor party candidates will be forced to fold their tents and walk off into the night, unless they can secure at least 6 per cent of the primary vote.

Instead of parties choosing preferences and lodging a Group Voting Ticket (GVT) with the electoral commission, the Coalition and the Greens want voters to choose their preferences.

The problem with eliminating the GVT is that only about 15 per cent of voters actually choose preferences – as demonstrated by the New South Wales upper house voting system – which means 85 per cent of votes for independent and minor party candidates will exhaust.

In other words, most of the 25 per cent of voters in the last Senate election who chose an independent or minor party candidate for their primary vote will find their vote in the rubbish bin before the vote count is completed. The practical effect of the proposed new voting system is to remove the independents and minor party candidates from the contest for the last seat in each of the six Australian states.

Current crossbench senators who will struggle to be re-elected under a de facto first-past-the-post voting system include Bob Day (South Australia), Ricky Muir (Victoria), John Madigan (Victoria), Dio Wang (Western Australia) and David Leyonhjelm (New South Wales). All will rely on preference deals to reach the 14.29 per cent quota for their seat in the Senate.

It is these preference deals that the proposed new voting system seeks to eliminate.

Under any form of first-past-the-post voting system, the last Senate seat in each of the six states will generally come down to a three-cornered contest between the Coalition, Labor and the Greens.

In such a contest, Labor and the Greens would be seriously disadvantaged as the flow of preferences is unreliable, unlike the Coalition where almost 100 per cent of Nationals votes go to the Liberals and vice versa. Ultimately, there will be little chance of Labor and the Greens controlling the Senate, even though the chances for the Coalition gaining control after just two or three half-Senate elections will be quite good – better than 50/50 in fact.

Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator, Ricky Muir.
Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator, Ricky Muir.

Modelling by the Renewable Energy Party suggests that the numbers in the Senate today – if the proposed new voting system had operated at the 2007, 2010 and 2013 elections – would be: Labor Party 25, Greens 10, Xenophon 2 and Coalition 39, meaning the Coalition controlling the Senate in its own right.

The proposed new voting system gives the Coalition an inbuilt and unavoidable advantage. All primary votes for the Coalition are safely contained in their single joint ticket where the Labor Party and the Greens votes are split.

Using the limits of the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ case scenarios the modeling demonstrates that in half Senate elections in any of the six states the Coalition needs a primary vote of just 42.9 per cent to be certain of electing three senators, but could still get three with as little as 39 per cent, and could win four spots with as little as 53.4 per cent.

The Labor Party and the Greens running on separate tickets could elect three senators with a combined primary vote of 42.9 per cent but would need more than 46.6 per cent to be certain of three, and more than 61.0 per cent to be sure of electing four.

The Coalition often achieves more than 53.4 per cent while Labor and the Greens rarely poll better than 57.2 per cent. Further down the track, Labor and the Greens will need to consider running on a joint ticket to have any prospect of competing with the Coalition in the Senate if the proposed voting changes go ahead.

At the moment, a diverse crossbench means that minor parties and independents may hold the balance of power in any serious dispute between Labor and the Coalition, and this is a healthy state of affairs for our democracy in my opinion.

During an address to the National Press Club a couple of weeks ago, Di Natale said he likes having more diversity in the parliament. He also claimed that without the benefit of the Senate crossbench, Tony Abbott’s tenure as prime minister might have ended after just one year, not two.

And yet the Greens want to change the Senate voting system to remove crossbench diversity.

The risk is another Greens calamity reminiscent of the popularly elected head of state proposal in 1998, not to mention Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme and Julia Gillard’s Malaysia solution.

Peter Breen

Peter Breen was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1999 representing the Reform the Legal System Party and served for eight years. He is unashamedly a fan of minor party and independent representation in the nation’s parliaments. Today he is national co-ordinator of the Renewable Energy Party. Peter works as a defamation and media lawyer and he is the author of the defamation practice manual Protecting Reputation available at www.peterbreen.com.au

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