One missing factor in the current debate about Senate voting reform is the ongoing shoddy treatment of independent candidates.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale quite rightly argued that his party didn’t want to create new barriers to entry for minor players and insisted that federal registration requirements for small parties not be made more onerous.
However, while federal party registrations will remain a lower barrier to entry than now applies in most states, it has become nigh on impossible for independent Senate candidates to succeed.
When I ran for the Senate in 2010, it was relatively easy to get on the ballot paper, but then the system shafted our team by not allowing any branding presence above the line. The result was a woeful 0.15% of the primary vote.
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Since then, the deposit for a two-person team has been lifted to $4000 and you need to come with 200 different nominators just to get on the Senate ballot paper.
Independents have been successful on more than a dozen occasions (Ted Mack, Andrew Wilkie, Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, etc) in the House of Representatives since Senate group voting tickets were introduced in 1984, but over those same 32 years, Nick Xenophon is the only independent who has made it into the Senate.
This is mainly because individual independents are not even given a presence above the line and registered groups of independents have no party branding, instead trading under the banner of “Group S” or whatever the alphabetical lucky dip delivers.
If registered parties are allowed to add logos to their party names above the line, this disenfranchisement of independent Senate candidates will only get worse.
This is why Tony Windsor would have a much better chance of beating Barnaby Joyce in his lower house seat of New England than pulling off a NSW Senate victory as a solo independent candidate who doesn’t even get mentioned above the line.
If the Greens are genuine about attempting to support other smaller parties, they would also have tackled the completely unfair system of public funding, which gives nothing to candidates who receive less than 4% of the primary vote.
When the Senate crossbench joins Malcolm Turnbull for dinner at The Lodge tonight, they should raise this question of the treatment of independents.
After all, three of them — Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus and John Madigan — were elected with the backing of a party but are now standing alone.
Formerly of the Democratic Labour Party, Madigan has launched the Manufacturing and Farming Party, the Brick with Eyes created a party called Glenn Lazarus Team, and Tasmanians will be offered a chance to vote for the Jacqui Lambie Network party. But why should insider independents be given a fast track to establish their own pop-up parties to build a brand presence above the line when outsiders have all the odds stacked against them?
Without even having to bother gathering the normal 500 members, Lambie, Lazarus and Madigan will be able to easily nominate Senate candidates across the country and then deploy the full resources of their Senate offices to support their campaigns.
It is extraordinary that the factional cynics in the Labor Party — and that includes always transactional Bill Shorten — are opposing the abolition of group voting tickets along with the introduction of optional preferential voting.
Former ACTU president and federal Labor MP Jennie George AO was spot on in her letter to The Australian yesterday when she wrote:
“I trust ALP caucus will reject the mindset of the factional operatives who appear intent on opposing the proposed Senate reforms. So used to factional deals themselves, the sacrifice of principle to political opportunism matters little them. The ALP should vote for proposals that give power over electoral outcomes to the voters and not to the backroom operators who have gamed the system.”
Niki Savva was also correct in her assessment in The Australian today. Now that Labor spokesman on electoral matters Gary Gray has savaged the Labor position, Bill Shorten should find a way to seek some amendments and then vote in favour of their passage through the Parliament.
Instead, it looks like Labor is taking a short-term position to secure cross-bench support for its industrial relations agenda in the Senate, along with favourable preference deals with the minnows at this year’s federal election.
Others should also have a good look at themselves. ABC election analyst Antony Green has been responsible for recommending some of the changes which have made it so much harder for independents.
When he testifies before a parliamentary committee on Senate reform next Tuesday, he should be asked whether he believes an independent candidate could ever win a seat.