The Senate faces its enemies, again

Peter Brent at Inside Story, always worth reading on Australian psephology, has a nice piece this week on the continuing campaign to distort our electoral system in favor of rural voters.

James McGrath, a Liberal National Party senator who chairs the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters, has suggested that proportional representation for the Senate should be abolished and replaced with single-member electorates that would give more representation to the bush.

Many countries have this problem, but it is particularly bad in Australia: the prevalence of a notion that country people have some superior virtue or authenticity, and are therefore entitled to a greater share in government than their numbers alone would deliver.

Not surprisingly, McGrath’s idea has been endorsed by various National Party members, including former leader Barnaby Joyce. But it also appeals to many who hold no particular brief for country voters, but who would like to get rid of most or all of the minor party representatives in the Senate.

So it’s not impossible that rural malapportionment might end up being a side issue in a more general campaign to nobble Senate proportionality. Andrew Robb, then a minister in the Howard government, proposed such a move in 2005, but it went nowhere. After 14 years of continued decline in political morality, perhaps it will now have more chance.

Brent, however, has a compromise suggestion. Fine, he says, let’s get rid of proportional representation in the Senate, but bring it in for the House of Representatives instead. (Yes, we have had some of this discussion before.)

It’s true that governments have had a hard time of it in the Senate in recent years. I think the hand-wringing about this is mostly unjustified, although reasonable people can disagree on that. But Brent’s proposal offers a touchstone for judging the complainants’ sincerity.

Do they just object to minor parties wielding irresponsible or disproportionate power, or do they want them excluded from any power at all? Are they trying to enhance democracy, or do they just want to be able to ignore the more than 25% of Australians who vote for minor parties?

To get an idea of what we’re talking about, here’s how the House of Representatives would have looked after this year’s election if the same votes had been applied to nationwide proportional representation* (I looked briefly at this at the time; this version includes final figures):

  Vote share St-Laguë D’Hondt Actual
Coalition 41.4% 66 68 77
Labor 33.3% 53 54 68
Greens + Animal Justice 11.2% 18 18 1
Assorted far right 8.2% 13 11 1
Centre Alliance 0.3% 1 0 1

So whereas our system of single-member districts gave the Coalition a narrow majority, a proportional system would have forced it to rely on some combination of far right parties in order to govern.

That might not sound like a good thing. And it might seem odd that Brent, who takes the problem of Senate obstruction more seriously than I do, is willing to transfer those very obstructionists to the more powerful house of parliament.

But his logic is sound. If the Senate is a problem, the problem is power without responsibility. If democracy gives us the wrong sort of representatives, we could at least put those representatives in a place where they will be accountable for their actions and have the maximum incentive to behave responsibly.

The same goes for the major parties. The Morrison government is already making deals with the far right to get its measures through the Senate; better if those deals were made explicit by being part of the process of forming government in the first place.

If One Nation is going to be dictating policy in any case, let its leaders sit in cabinet where they can take responsibility for it – as Winston Peters, for example, does in New Zealand. Then, perhaps, more of the Coalition’s voters will see what is going on and think about whether this is what they really want.

Macaulay expressed this well, recounting how England in the late 1690s was groping its way towards responsible government:

That an unprincipled man should be followed by a majority of the House of Commons is no doubt an evil. But, when this is the case, he will nowhere be so harmless as at the head of affairs. As he already possesses the power to do boundless mischief, it is desirable to give him a strong motive to abstain from doing mischief; and such a motive he has from the moment that he is entrusted with the administration. … The most greedy and cruel wrecker that ever put up false lights to lure mariners to their destruction will do his best to preserve a ship from going to pieces on the rocks, if he is taken on board of her and made pilot.

Of course, it’s not just the politicians’ behavior that would change. Probably more important is the effect on voter behavior. With a real chance of being able to win seats, there’s every likelihood that a centrist force would be able to establish itself; even if it failed to win the balance of power between left and right, it would at least offer the Coalition an alternative to relying on the far right.

In most of the democratic world, this sort of thing is uncontroversial – it’s part of the very stuff of what people mean by democracy. Australia, thanks in part to the National Party and its allies, has some catching up to do.


* Sainte-Laguë and D’Hondt are rival calculating methods for proportional representation; the latter is slightly more favorable to larger parties. I have left out the independents, who won three seats in the actual House, but their effect would probably be to augment the centrist vote.


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