The tradition of senators working with the government is one that should be re-introduced, says Peter Reith in today’s Age, a bonus news extra that comes with the daily wraparound ad produced by Fairfax. Well, I bet you think that, mate, I have no doubt. After all, it’s not politics — it’s a tradition, like clog dancing. How could anyone deny a tradition? One suspects the part of the tradition Reith would like the best is where independent senators knuckle under meekly to whatever the government proposes and throw in a few amendments.
Of course Turnbull — having set up a long election that does not flatter his skills — might actually manage to throw the thing. If Labor squeaks in on a hung parliament, expect to start to hear a lot about states’ rights, George Reid blah di blah.
The high polling for the micro-parties and independents — 15%, on top of the Greens 10% — is looking like the story of the election. Indeed, this most tedious of elections, as far as the lower house goes, looks like being a crucial one as far as changes in Australian governance goes. Despite the changes to Senate voting procedures, which eliminated carousel tickets of nominal micro-parties, small parties and independents are holding their own. I would prefer more of that vote flowing to the Greens. In the absence of that, a rich crossbench of left, right and centre offers an opportunity for real political reform.
Those of us who supported the abolition of single-box ticket-voting did so not without misgivings. As your correspondent pointed out last year, this was simply an enormous unthinking mistake, a small change made in 1984, without any thought given as to how it would work in a proportional-preferential voting system. It ticked along well enough for decades before the gaming inherent in its structure came to be deployed. Once that happened, it had to be changed. But in its time, it did deliver into Parliament a number of people who were decidedly not political professionals and showed a capacity to take the job seriously and learn along the way. It wasn’t quite the Athenian lottery system of democracy, but it wasn’t too far from it.
The abolition of it, and the substitution of an easy above-the-line optional ticket system, threatened to turn the chamber into a four- or five-party thing. Once again, not a bad result, to my mind, if the Greens could regain balance of power; a disaster if, as seemed possible, the Coalition could take back two or three of the seats occupied by implicitly or explicitly right-wing people. That latter prospect is fading; the crossbenches after July 2 might look very much as they did after September 2013 — a motley crew with a centre of gravity, last time occupied by PUP, this time by Xenophon’s NXT team. If Xenophon is lucky, he could have the balance of power within the balance of power.
Bizarrely, the greatest change that may occur is that the Senate, for the first time in its history, may begin to take the form it was intended to have: as a states’ house, representing states’ interests. In South Australia, Nick Xenophon will get one seat, very likely two, possibly three. In Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie has a decent chance. In Queensland, Glenn Lazarus or Pauline Hanson may get up. All, even Hanson, will present themselves as states’ champions first. That might well encourage similar groups elsewhere.
From a left perspective, that might (emphasise might) be much to the good. Championing the non-VIC/NSW states (the BAPH states — Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart — as the ABC used to call them) would necessarily bring to the fore statist, interventionist policies that present the country as an entire community to be managed as such, not the preferred neoliberal model — a two-state, really two-city, centre, with a periphery left to wither away. Should that occur, then this election will have become an important one — but not for any reason that Malcolm Turnbull would want. Win or lose, he will be damned as the man who, for no great result, gave two months of free publicity to the opposition, the Greens, and a bunch of independents who couldn’t ordinarily get TV time if they shot someone in the street. Who could be surprised that the Coalition would like to revive the “tradition” of senators working with the government? They have already revived the tradition of pissing razor blades every day to the poll, and there’s still a month to go.