When the Senate resolved last week to conduct a sweeping inquiry into just about anything that might embarrass the Queensland government, Coalition members may have briefly felt cause to wonder if a government had ever before had to suffer so bothersome an upper house.

Of course, no such thought could survive long in the mind of anyone with a firm grasp of Australian political history. Even so, the present configuration of the Senate is like no other that has preceded it, and the complications that have arisen in its relations with the government have taken on novel forms.

Most obviously, there is the complexity of the balance of power, which requires the government to woo three distinct voting blocs to get its way on legislation, one of which must be that controlled by Clive Palmer. Another is the live issue of the electoral system that brought this state of affairs about, and the government’s stated intention of reforming it.

In May, federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters gave bipartisan support to an optional preferential voting system, in which voters would be allowed to number as many boxes as they chose above the line. Crucially, this would do away with the present system of parties determining the preferences of those voting above the line, with votes instead dropping out of the count at the point where no further boxes were numbered.

The recommendation appeared in an interim report of a long-running inquiry into last year’s election, which was released to allow for the requisite legislation to be handled in good time before the end of the term. But by the time the changeover to the new Senate took place on July 1, the political atmosphere had been transformed by the overwhelmingly hostile response to the budget, and it appeared that the government found cause to think again.

One concern, as advanced through the government-friendly voices of Terry McCrann and Andrew Bolt in the News Limited papers, is that any shift towards optional preferential voting would be to the advantage of Labor and the Greens — which, for some, is all the argument that is required.

This view is founded in the pronounced skew of the micro-party vote to the Right, which lacks an equivalent to the Greens as a dominant vehicle for an anti-major party protest vote.

Under the proposed new system, many of these votes would exhaust when micro-party candidates were excluded early in the count. That would reduce the likelihood of results such as now-independent Senator John Madigan’s win for the Democratic Labour Party in 2010, and former senator Steve Fielding’s for Family First in 2004, which respectively came at the expense of Labor and the Greens.

“The Senate electoral system is deemed by Palmer to be fine the way it is, its critics being motivated by ‘sour grapes’.”

A further motivation is that the prime beneficiaries of the existing regime are the very members who hold the balance of power.

There is much that Clive Palmer wants done about the electoral system — voter identification to tackle the barely existent problem of multiple voting; differently coloured ballot papers at each polling booth to address an anomaly in the count for his seat of Fairfax, which turned out to have resulted from a data entry error; and an end to indicative preference counts in seats won by independents, so that the public may be kept in the dark as to the result of the national two-party preferred vote.

However, the Senate electoral system is deemed by Palmer to be fine the way it is, its critics being motivated by “sour grapes”.

Similar views are held by Family First Senator Bob Day, who reckons it’s “obvious from comments by political incumbents that the election of these minor party senators is an affront to their own sense of entitlement”.

The lack of progress towards reform adds another layer of complication to relations between the government and the Senate, with respect to the prospects for a double dissolution.

Theory and practice have never aligned so far as the double dissolution mechanism is concerned, but one of its purposes is to provide a disincentive to cavalier Senate obstruction. If the Senate persists in blocking a bill, it must do so in the knowledge that it might shortly be held accountable for its decision in the court of public opinion.

But for as long as the existing electoral system remains in place, any double dissolution threat the government might deliver to the crossbench will ring hollow.

Double dissolutions result in the election of full complements of 12 Senators per state rather than the usual six, which means the quota for election is considerably lower — 7.7% rather than the usual 14.3%. Even with the higher quota, preference harvesters have been clearing the bar with growing regularity at recent elections. If that bar were to be lowered by nearly half, the election of one fringe candidate per state could be taken for granted, with the further possibility in each case of a second.

With all the risk that an early election entails, all the government would stand to gain would be an even bigger, even less manageable Senate crossbench.

For all the turmoil that ensued last year, there seems every possibility that when the next election is held, voters will once again be treated to tablecloth-sized ballot papers, opaque preference arrangements, and the accidental election of candidates from parties few have ever heard of before.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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