Democracy is a constant search for balance between competing principles.
Take the balance between single-member electorates in the House of Representatives and the principle of majority representation. On May 18, the Morrison-led coalition won 77 of the 151 seats in the House—50.99%. The national two-party-preferred vote stands today at 51.42% for the coalition.
That number may alter as the ‘non-classic’ seats, currently fifteen, where minor parties and independents dominate, are recounted to produce the two-party (Labor vs non-Labor) figure. For now, give the system a tick for getting the balance right.
Occasionally, it goes wrong. It did in 1998 and 1990 when the Howard and Hawke governments each won re-election but did not win majorities of the two-party vote.
But the two-party-preferred vote, while a useful tool for comparing election results, is essentially an artificial construct. In a parliamentary system, winning a two-candidate-preferred majority in each seat is the real test.
The 1998 and 1990 results are often cited as evidence of a broken political system. It’s arguable. It’s the same debate the Americans have over the Electoral College. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s popular majority—2.8 million more votes than Trump —was overturned by the state-by-state votes. On the other hand, whilst Clinton won 65.8 million votes, all the other candidates polled a total of 70.8 million.
A denial of democracy? Perhaps the US needs preferential voting. Maybe the Democrats should have run a smarter campaign in the states they couldn’t afford to lose.
Then there’s the role of upper houses in the legislative process. In the United States, they entrenched the Senate in the constitution as a states’ chamber with longer terms than the House and gave it significant and exclusive powers.
Here, our constitutional fathers made the Senate a states’ house in the same way, through equal representation, currently twelve senators per state. But there the similarity ends.
The British went through a major constitutional confrontation in 1911 that resulted in the Parliament Act stripping the House of Lords of its ability to block money bills. The Lords’ power to reject legislation was reduced to only being able to delay it for two years.
These questions remain unresolved in Australia. The Whitlam Dismissal of 1975 is the archetypal illustration of the dilemma: governments are chosen in the lower house but can be destroyed by the upper house.
We see it also in the Senate’s legislative power. This week, One Nation’s Pauline Hanson began her now-standard tease over the government’s package of tax cuts. She preferred to see a coal-fired power station built with some of the money. She wants the Bradfield irrigation scheme introduced to drought-proof the country. First proposed in 1938 by the man who designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Bradfield scheme has always been dismissed as scientifically deficient and anything but cost-effective.
Hanson’s two votes—Malcolm Roberts’ re-election has not yet been confirmed—are crucial in a Senate where a majority is 39. The coalition looks like it will have 35 members, possibly 36. Without Hanson, it must look to the two remnants of Nick Xenophon’s team, now rebadged as the Centre Alliance, or to Cory Bernardi and the returning Jacqui Lambie.
The Centre Alliance senators, Griff and Patrick, have their own bargaining chips. They want gas export limits and action on power prices. The negotiating demands of Bernardi and Lambie are not yet known.
What is clear is that the Senate will remain a place where the government’s legislative program can be picked apart by parties that won few votes.
The Centre Alliance polled just 2.6% in South Australia and 0.2% nationally. Its two senators are what’s left of the 21.76% won by Xenophon in 2016.
One Nation polled 5.37% nationally and 10.2% in Queensland, the only state where it can win a seat.
In practice, Bernardi and Hanson usually end up voting with the government. The Centre Alliance is reasonable in its approach to deal-making. The government may find this term the easiest of them all so far. The balance between electoral victory and minority power in the Senate has evened up a bit.
They can thank Malcolm Turnbull. His Senate voting reforms of 2016 may yet be his greatest achievement as prime minister. Group voting tickets were eliminated. Optional preferential voting above and below-the-line was introduced.
Eliminating group tickets stifled the ability of small groups to take control of voters’ preferences and channel them to each other through myriad complex ‘preference whispering’ deals. Preference exchanges through how-to-vote cards are still possible but the power to allocate preferences has been given back to the voters. They must write the numbers on the ballot paper. No party can take control of their preferences. It was an admirable reform.
In this year’s election, aside from the coalition parties, the ALP and the Greens, it appears that only One Nation and Jacqui Lambie have been able to win seats. Lambie polled 8.92% in Tasmania. The days of a Ricky Muir winning a seat off 0.51% of the primary vote are over. At the next election, it is likely the Centre Alliance and Bernardi will also disappear.
Some see this as an attack on minor parties. It’s not. Forty-one micro parties contested this year’s Senate contests. Only six of them polled over one per cent. Most of them struggled to make it to half of one per cent. They don’t deserve to win. It’s not much of a revolt against the majors.
A feature of Australian politics is that few people argue in favour of a government being allowed to govern. The knee-jerk reaction is to see the Senate as a necessary safeguard on an over-reaching government. Partisans from both sides justify obstruction of their opponents.
But a mature democracy like ours has many countervailing forces. No federal government is unfettered. They all must face the full force of the Constitution and the High Court. They all must face the weight of state governments. They all co-exist with a multiplicity of media and pressure groups. They all must handle the forces at play in their core constituencies, within their party-rooms and beyond. They all must face election every three years. And they exist in a global environment that can upturn our expectations in an instant.
Perhaps the great problem in our politics is that we struggle to accept that a government should have three years to implement its philosophy and policies. We don’t cope well with the concept of election consequences. Our institutions offer restraint and obstruction. At times, minority opinion is accorded much power.
Three of the last four elections have been very close. One produced a hung parliament. Some call it polarisation and tribalism. It worries many. It may just be a phase.
In its own singularly emphatic way, the electorate may have imposed a balance that many struggle to accept.
Malcolm Farnsworth is the publisher of australianpolitics.com