Thank God for the Senate?

Routinely, we entrust the Senate’s balance of power to minor parties and independents, a voting strategy that covers our bet on whichever major party has a majority in the House of Representatives. We deny governments the double majorities – majorities in both House and Senate – that turn parliament into a rubber stamp, a signer of blank cheques. Which saddens one-eyed supporters of major parties. But only when their party is in government; it pleases them in opposition. For most of us, what matters is that our majority-denying instinct is a healthy democratic instinct.

Thank PR – proportional representation – for having this option. PR treats each state is a single multi-member electorate and allocates Senate seats to parties in proportion to their vote. (Usually in batches of six because each of your twelve senators will serve two terms.) The question therefore: following that healthy democratic instinct, ought we extend PR to the House?

PR in the House would work something like this. Take the 151 House electorates, now single-membered, and merge them into 31 electorates, each a five-member electorate. Cop the expense of the extra four MPs and elect proportionally, as we do for the Senate. Then say goodbye to single-party governments with a House majorities that is announced on election night. Say hello to multi-party governments that negotiate their way into a majority coalition after the election. Occasionally, say hello to minority governments that get by with the issue-by-issue support of minor parties and independents.

(Confusingly, the Liberal and National parties also call their long-term partnership a coalition. But their coalition is a political fixture, established long ago and reaffirmed before each election, not up-for-grabs after each election. The pre-election deal may include electorate sharing and non-compete agreements, mimicking single parties in that respect.)

Now back to the story, saying goodbye to single-party governments with House majorities – whether Labor or Liberal National. Be prepared for an acrimonious parting. The majors will foretell disaster, argued as follows: Australia needs strong and stable government; governments with House majorities are strong and stable; regrettably, only two-party systems deliver House majorities; voters must therefore be taught not to waste votes on third parties; the single-member rule teaches that lesson, forcing all but two parties out of House races. So there you have it: single-member House electorates underpins the two-party system that guarantees strong and stable government.

Except that it doesn’t. Strong and stable government is no longer a realistic prospect. So, why keep single-member electorates? For sentimental reasons? Best wave goodbye, wipe the tears away, think on the attractions of multi-member electorates and PR.

One, start with their representative qualities. Multi-member electorates offer diverse groups their first shot at direct representation in the House. Whereas, in single-member electorates that happen to be safe, very large minorities go entirely unrepresented for long periods. That is the fate of ABC voters in an electorate that safely votes XYZ. Say the vote splits 45:55; a succession of its safe MPs then safely ignores 45% of the electorate.

Two, PR elects more women. Perhaps male-only tickets are more readily seen for what they are in multi-member electorates. Or they give women a better chance by creating more marginal seats; career politicians are mostly men who crave safe seats that extend their time in politics and reduce their time in the electorate.

Three, fewer safe seats, all seats more marginal, are worthy objectives in themselves. Because safe seats are a problem for their voters. Why take the vote seriously if you know how the seat will fall – exactly as in elections past, as it will in future elections? Like the overflow crowd at the football, watching the big screen outside, their voices don’t resound in the arena itself. The fix is to build as many arenas as it takes, as many multi-member electorates as it takes, and organise serious contests for each. That exposes all MPs to the sting of electoral disapproval, reassures voters that their vote means something, that their thoughts and actions have consequences for their country. Broad-based voter engagement can only strengthen our resistance to fringe views and disreputable agendas.

We should also spare a thought for the marginal electorates in our two-party system, the 20 or 30 electorates that decide when one party needs a rest, when it’s time to give the other another go. Better still, spare a thought for the minority of voters with the decisive swing votes in those marginal electorates. The rest of us are mere spectators. We watch as the parties go to work on these unlucky few, watch the electoral munitions explode in their trenches, monitor the polls for any movement in the front line. These unlucky few bear the burden of our democratic process, a burden that would be more justly shared in a system of multi-member electorates.

Four, expect more independents in a PR-elected House than in the existing Senate. Voters are open to community-based candidates, giving independents a chance. Their community roots may be too localised to win a Senate seat at the state level, but plenty deep enough to win a House seat at the local level. Perhaps that why the smaller states send more independents to the Senate, dispatched by their communities not by their parties.

Finally, we can also think positively about the inter-party negotiations that, post-election, configure the new government. The negotiating interval, between election and new government, need not be long; the election night count may put a particular combination of parties well ahead, such that everybody knows who takes power the following morning. But, often enough, weeks may pass before a multi-party coalition is negotiated. The country is rudderless for a period, government on hold. But a rudder is useless if the electorate has not settled on a destination, as an inconclusive election strongly suggests. Some decisions simply need more time and patience; everyday life teaches that.

In which case, taking time to build a multi-party government, post-election, may be the only work that’s endures. The new direction – and work for the rudder – emerges from inter-party negotiations to form government, with the important discipline of parties having to disclose their intentions and priorities to each other. Intentions and priorities that the parties concealed or distorted during the campaign. A post-election period of clarification and haggling, tweaking and rescheduling, may rescue us from the campaign’s heat, noise and confusion.



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