After four hours of hearings in the main committee room yesterday morning, Senate voting reform is powering ahead at breakneck speed, and the government can now ready itself for a potential double dissolution election as early as July after making a deal with the Greens to back the changes.
The various players have all lodged their reports this morning and the big change is that the government, the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon have all recommended a shift to optional preferential voting below the line.
From the top, Recommendation 1 of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) reads:
"The Committee recommends that the Government introduce a system of partial optional preferential voting below the line. It proposes that:
voters should be instructed on the ballot paper to mark a minimum of 12 preferences to vote below the line; and
a related vote savings provision for below the line votes be introduced to ensure that any ballot with at least six boxes numbered in a sequential order (starting at ‘1’) be considered formal."
The Labor opposition seems as entrenched, political and inflammatory as ever, despite the party’s previous support for Senate voting reform.
The dissenting report, which was clearly driven by Senator Stephen Conroy, includes some over-the-top language, such as this claim:
“If the Liberals and the Greens engaged in this conduct in trade or commerce, they could be prosecuted for cartel behaviour.”
Labor also claims it is “a dishonest farce” to suggest the reforms line up with the unanimous recommendations of the cross-party JSCEM committee.
But when it comes to things like optional preferential voting and the abolition of group voting tickets, it does line up. This is what today’s majority JSCEM report said on the substantive reforms:
"Abolishing Group Voting Tickets is a highly significant reform that will directly address much of the criticism and disenchantment with the Senate voting system arising from the last federal election. The Committee commends the Government for taking bold and decisive action to end the virulent forms of preference harvesting that has resulted in what is known as ‘gaming the system’. This is a powerful change that enfranchises voters."
This is shaping up as one of the biggest Greens-Labor policy splits in a while. The Greens submission, along with the additional comments appended to the committee report today, spell out a long-held and principled position around the abolition of group voting tickets.
They point out this is a reform that federal Labor promised to introduce as part of its minority government agreement with the Greens in 2010, but never delivered on, despite jointly having control of the Senate.
The ALP didn’t bother to make a submission to the JSCEM and didn’t even send a party official to attend yesterday’s hearings. It seems the elected ALP representatives, especially the major factional leaders, are all-powerful on these matters. The Liberal and National Parties both submitted and sent their federal directors to answer questions yesterday, whereas the ALP’s national secretary George Wright was conspicuously absent.
Labor’s official spokesman on Senate reform, Gary Gray, was also a no-show at the committee, having been rolled by a gaggle of factional heavies led by Conroy and Senator Sam Dastyari.
Why Conroy is boxing on so aggressively when Labor’s credibility has been shredded by Gary Gray is something of a mystery. Presumably it is about getting preference flows from disaffected minor parties at the coming election.
On Monday night, there was only 22 public submissions published on the JSCEM website but this has now ballooned to 107.
There was widespread support for the reforms from submitters who are independent of the affected parties, including the likes of ABC psephologist Antony Green and Professor George Williams.
The opposition came from incumbent crossbenchers and several of the current 40 or so micro-parties that have federal registration.
The Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party put the case against reform quite well in this submission and then its man, Senator Ricky Muir, also produced this 38-page dissenting report today.
However, despite preference whisperer Glenn Druery promising to convene a council of war on Saturday to plan retribution against the supporters of Senate reform, it is hard to see them being able to co-ordinate a gaggle of left and right parties to all run and preference against this left-right coalition supporting reform.