Derryn Hinch

Writer checks notes, muses on which article to write up … finds notes on legitimacy, political structure … decides to do piece on House v Senate … role of independents … protectors of the spirit of what Parliament was meant to be … glances at news … “Derryn Hinch on track for Senate seat” … writer burns notes …

Well, not exactly. But there’s nothing likely to check any impulse you might have to talk of matters institutional, the spirit of democracy nestled somewhere in the gears of the machine, than to hear that the Human Headline might get his behind on the red benches for a three- or six-year term. The prolix bearded obsessive (heh) has scored No. 1 poll position on the Victorian Senate ballot and been preferenced by Labor above the Greens in their how-to-vote tickets. With all that, and high personal visibility, and a 7.7% quota, he has a better chance than most.

Given that, and the prominence of parties such as the Cyclists Party (whose presence, whether intended or not, appears certain to split off a section of the Green vote), it’s a little harder to make a claim for the legitimacy of the Senate — but that’s exactly what I’m a-gonna do. With the widespread sense that the lower house campaign is, certain seats aside, a courtly masque performed by an elite, the Senate comes to the fore.

In that respect, it’s worth remembering that a lot of the stories are being based on the old single-box above-the-line Senate voting system, when the parties really did have the power to fling the vote around. That’s gone now. If Labor voters want to vote for Hinch over the Greens, they’re going to have to actually do so. The “preference” deal is occurring at the same time as Labor feints towards the left on a whole lot of other issues. The party is all over the shop on this stuff, a victim of Greens Derangement Syndrome. Labor volunteers despise this sort of game-playing and feel that Labor and the Greens should exchange votes as two progressive parties, should simply refuse to hand them out (the same goes for any dodgy Greens tickets, such as the one preferencing Fred Nile’s party in NSW).

In this first Senate election using the new optional preferential ticket system, the major parties are hoping that enough people will be confused or inattentive enough to believe that they still have to vote the whole ticket. They may be right, but that will not last. The Senate is starting to become what a chamber is meant to be: a place where the members represent something like the actual vote gained, and a place that makes it possible for start-ups and new parties to form, and to punish parties that become complacent.

The one-above-the-line system introduced in 1984 had the unintended consequence of turning the Senate ticket into a potential political casino — though it took three decades before that potential began to be exploited. The new Senate rules have had a different unintended consequence — they have created a disjuncture between the upper and lower house.

The Senate has become more expressive of democracy; the House remains a machine system, combining single-member electorates, compulsory voting and an exhaustive preferential system. In all but a dozen (at most) of the 150 seats, you have to eventually vote for either Labor or the Coalition for your vote to count at all. So if you want to express a strong preference for the Greens or NXT or an independent, you have no choice but to deliver your vote up to the two majors.

This “triple-lock” (quadruple lock, if you add in the existing system of public funding of parties) is, as I’ve noted before, a travesty of democracy. Our major parties lack an independent backbench, so the lower house lacks even the vestigial democracy of the US House or the UK Commons, where backbench rebellions can clarify the difference between the representative chamber and the actual government. When our House works as the major parties and the press gallery want it to, it can scarcely be distinguished from a rubber-stamping chamber in the old Eastern Bloc.

This time around, the farce may be total — for once again we may get a situation in which one party, Labor, gets an overall majority vote, while the Coalition retains the greater number of seats. Constitutional fetishists will say that this reflects the idea of a single-member representative democracy — as if 150 independent members were chosen by voters on their personal qualities, came to Canberra, and chose a government on the first day of sitting. It would be a fiction in any party system, but when it’s an exhaustive preferential party system, it’s an absurd fiction. A lump of wood with the word “Labor” or “Coalition” stamped across it could get elected in about 100 of our 150 seats.

A split result would be the third such in the last quarter-century, after 1990 (when the Coalition won by 0.2%) and 1998 (when Labor won by 1.96%). If we get the hat trick this time round, I cannot see how we can regard this system as in any way democratic or representative; it is simply the political caste taking turns in and out of power. If a split result occurs in the Coalition’s favour (I can’t see it breaking the other way, this time around), then the new Turnbull government has no mandate to enact its program without extensive consultation with the Senate.

Should that result occur, then the Senate comes into its own — whatever its motley composition. None of this mandate bullshit should stand for a second — the Senate is, essentially, a multi-member electorate system, run on a proportional-preferential basis. In a split result, it is in the Senate where legitimacy should lie.

But, of course, even when there isn’t a split result, the House’s claim to a mandate is absurd. Should the Coalition win, say, 50.5% to 49.5%, it will have persuaded one voter in two hundred to prefer it as the government of the day. On that basis, it will claim the right to give away billions in tax cuts to transnational corporations to ship out of the country, to begin an onslaught on Medicare as a public health system, and to nobble the NDIS and Gonski reforms which the public voted for in both 2010 and 2013. The changes to the Senate make visible what has always been the case. This time around, the fix might be visible to many more people.

Should there be any opportunity for the Senate, or independents in the House, to throw a huge wrench in this machine after July 2, they should take it. If we have another minority-overall-vote government, then there is no reason to respect the old convention on waving a budget through. More important than any single policy is stopping this smooth elite two-party semi-dictatorship in its tracks, and forcing a change that would make it, in some way, more responsive to public demands and desires. For that, there is a place for everyone in the battle. Even the Human Headline.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey