James McGrath senate liberal party
Liberal Senator James McGrath (Image: AAP/Alan Porritt)

Now that the Coalition is sitting pretty in the Senate, the government has the ability to entrench its position through self-interested changes to electoral laws. Will they go for it?

All eyes are on the regular post-election inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. Its preliminaries have been the subject of much greater interest than usual. And fears of a Republican-style partisan assault on democratic norms have hardly been discouraged by the committee’s chair, James McGrath, who came to the post shortly after Malcolm Turnbull’s demise last year.

One of McGrath’s early forays into the realm of electoral matters was a stint on Boris Johnson’s campaign for the London mayoralty in 2008, which came to an abrupt end after he asserted that African-Caribbean residents concerned at Johnson’s colourful pronouncements on racial issues could “go if they don’t like it here”. His disregard for liberal sensitivities got another workout on the weekend, when his social media followers were treated to a post boasting about a dead cockatoo caught in the roof rack of his car.

More substantively, McGrath’s big ticket reform proposal going into the inquiry has been for the abolition of proportional representation in the Senate. This has won enthusiastic endorsement from Nationals including Barnaby Joyce.

The idea is that each state should be broken into six provinces served by two senators each, which at a normal half-Senate election would produce a dynamic little different from elections for the lower house.

The result would be a Senate at least as dominated by the major parties as the House of Representatives, at a time when those parties are only able to command two-thirds of the national Senate vote between them.

Worse still, Joyce in particular sees in the scheme a means to return to the days of over-representation of rural areas, which would make Coalition majorities in the Senate (such as that which produced the 1975 crisis) the normal state of affairs.

The one saving grace of this idea is that there is no chance of it happening. Any such move would be bitterly opposed by Labor and the minor parties in the Senate, and can accordingly be dismissed for now as a cost-free exercise in virtue signalling to the Nationals base.

Another notion floated recently by McGrath is that parliamentarians who quit the party for which they are elected should forfeit their seats. The Liberals especially are keenly sensitive to this issue, having suffered Cory Bernardi’s departure shortly after his election to a six-year Senate term in 2016, and Julia Banks’ move to the crossbench after the coup against Malcolm Turnbull.

This notion might be worth considering in the Senate, where voting is expressly structured around parties, and vacancies are filled by the party for which an outgoing senator was elected.

However, depriving constituency MPs of their freedom of action is alien to the principles of representative democracy. It’s also difficult to see how party renegades could be prevented from skirting the issue by simply ignoring party discipline without actually resigning.

Far more likely is a change to the rules governing pre-poll voting, after barely more than half the votes at the May election were cast on election day.

Concern about the impact of this development on the democratic process has been widely expressed (Crikey’s Bernard Keane being a rare dissident), but it’s notable that all the MPs who have raised concerns through inquiry submissions have been from the conservative side of politics.

This reflects a theme evident in the United States, where Republicans have sought to limit early voting to discourage low-income, pro-Democrat constituencies who lack flexibility with their work schedules.

However, Australia largely negates this issue by holding its elections on Saturdays, and state elections in most cases run well enough with two- rather than three-week pre-poll periods, which would seem a defensible reform for the federal sphere. McGrath has also expressed support for voter identification laws, but more explicit voter suppression measures would likely fall foul of the High Court, which has been notably more activist in this area than its US counterpart.

However, the fact that radical surgery for the Senate is being publicly contemplated raises questions as to what appetites the Coalition might develop should it enjoy a still stronger position in the Senate after another election win in 2022.

Peter Fray

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