BALANCE OF POWER October 31, 2007Posted by wmmbb in Australian Politics.
We have n days, x hours, y minutes and z seconds to go. Now it seems to me, we might just introduce another stage in our drawn out election campaign, in which the question of the balance of power in the Senate is weighed. The Senate ballot paper, may be the only way to re-establish accountability and transparency in the political process. This view was expressed repeatedly by the callers on ABC National Radio’s Australia Talks.
The Coalition parties have had the majority in the Senate allowing the government to push through its legislative program without reference to independent investigation by committees and without the need to trade and negotiate with minor parties. The public interrogation of public servants by the Estimates Committee was abandoned.
The election campaign looks as though it will have at least three stages. First we had the phoney campaign with the ascension of K Rudd and the abortive attacks on him from the government including the Brian Burke Affair that saw the dismissal, unfair in my view but now forgotten of Ian Campbell from the Cabinet, the New York strip club affair and the Budget give-aways, now mostly, if not entirely forgotten. Then we had the launch of the official campaign period, immediately followed by the multi-billion tax cuts which seem to have sunk without trace, or without the expected bounce in the polls for the Government. Since then I have lost track of all the announcements with the spending programs (Although I notice that Bryan at Oz Politics is keeping record). In two weeks, the ALP will launch their campaign speech. The Coalition will presumably have their policy launch sometime about that time as well.
The influence of the Senate voting system on outcomes was not made clear in the program. Given the proportional representation system used for the Senate, it is rare that a major party has the numbers to dominate legislative program, as happened for the Coalition Government since 2004. Other proportional representation systems, as the callers observed, that apply in Tasmania (Hare-Clark System) and for the NSW Legislative Council. Of course, it is also the case that the Australian Senate is elected for consecutive half-Senate elections. The Senators elected in 2004 will remain until 2010. Senators voted in on 24 November will remain until 2013. Minor party senators are usually elected for the sixth position on the State ballots, if at all, although the Greens perform better in Tasmania consistently winning the fifth position.
95% of voters in 2003 voted above the line, a method of voting that was introduced to limit the size of the Senate ballot paper and doubtless to reduce the informal vote. It is not just the policies of the minor parties that get little time in the media, it is not easy to find out how many candidates there are on the Senate ballot paper that could be used as a check number when voting below the line, which requires listing each candidate in preference for a hundred or more candidates. It is easy to lose count.
Voting above the line simply means putting a one in the box of the preferred party which a predetermined distribution of the vote, which is required to be lodge with the electoral commission. Parties then negotiate in pre-election deals with minor parties. Lists of these distributions should be available in all polling booths. Of course the major parties would prefer to win half or more of the seats in each state and territory for themselves. Thereby the anomaly of a successful Family First candidate in Victoria who won despite receiving 2% of the primary vote, who was successful by been given the residual ALP vote after distribution plus preferences of other candidates and parties.
The minor parties play a balance of power role when there is no majority in their own right for one of the major parties, and when the major parties are divided over the issue in question. In those circumstances legislation can only be passed with the agreement of a minor parties or party depending on the numbers in the Senate.
The voting system creates the numbers game, and the numbers of the minor parties elected from the most recent and the prior election create the conditions for the balance of power. The question about whether the balance of power by minor parties required them to make policy concessions was not given a straight answer. Common sense suggests that compromise, concession and trade-offs are part of the deal, with the condition that the loyalty of the voters cannot be taken for granted. The balance of power situation allows for the use of committee systems for transparency, accountability and participation.
Here are the questions the callers asked:
Caller(Richard) I am concerned about climate change. Why should the Democrats be preference over the Greens?
Caller (Gordon) It is essential for minor parties to have the balance of power to examine all legislation.
Caller (Di) I am tired of living in an economy. I am part of a society. It is the minor parties that are for the people as distinct from big business. We need transparency.
Caller (Georgie):How do preferences work. In absence of absolute majority, why is it the least votes that get distributed first?
Given the limitations of radio no doubt she was given a general description of the how the preference system works in the House of Reps. The actual question was ignored.
Caller (Leanne) ACT Senate vote for Kerrie Tucker. Really important to have minor parties. Coalition has abused power eg Iraq War. ALP conspired with Coalition to shut down debate.
Caller (Tom) : The greens hold the balance of power in Tas and transparency is also in the general interest in the Senate.
Caller (John) Preference deals among parties is offensive. What about a better system
Caller (Scott) LDP is one party with policies with which I can agree. It is a fantasy to suppose that minor parties will produce checks and balances. This is shown in NSW Legilative Council which has a potpourri of minor parties.
Caller (Bill) Concerned to find out party policy. Do they have policy on casual work force policies – 30% of workforce. They gloat:”I can sack you at a minutes notice”.
Caller (Justin) What you think about introducing optional preferential voting, lessen chances of minor parties, works in Tasmania.
Caller (Anne) Will the Greens and Democrats form a major party?
Caller (Julia): The scare campaign of FF when facing the major critical issue of climate change. The existing Senate has rubber stamped anti-terror laws and NT legislation.
Caller (Mark) The committee system of the Senate has been knobbled.
What is most crucial in voting for the minor parties
Christine Miline: The Greens prioritize climate change, the common good over private interest( that is why we oppose tax cuts), social justice issues, and peace and non violence.
Andrew Bartlett: We need a Senate that works with party of the centre and proven experience on the full range of issue. We need to put our First Australians first. The Democrats establish common ground around key issues.
Jeff Buchanan for Family First: The family environment must be accorded the priority, not just given lip service.
My problem is that the Senate is not constituted in a democratic way. Since when is a gerrymandered set of electorates being democratic? It may be federalism but it is not democracy. Still the Senate does give representation to minor parties, and the presence of minor parties often creates the circumstances in which the non-government parties can hold the Government to account and allow for an independent committee processes. I think that the House of Representative should be elected on a democratic basis that allows plurality and reflects the opinion of the electorate. The irony is that Senate is irrelevant as a States House. It is under the circumstances when the minor parties with a major party, government or opposition, hold the balance of power, it is the only source of accountability, transparency and review in the Australian Federal System.
I was surprised that callers were not referred to the Australia Votes 2007 site, which has links to the major and minor parties and their policies. For example, I note the Greens agree with me that Australian troops should be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still the presence of Family First, and the other parties on ABC, is evidence of the importance of winning office to sustain third parties. The classic example for me is the fact that Ross Perot gained 19% of the vote in the 1992 US Presidential Election, but where is his Reform Party now. The Australian Senate at least facilitates representation by third parties, and when the balance of power is in play gives them an central role in the political drama.
In my opinion, it is not sufficient that third parties be recognized on the ballot paper, but that they have a real chance to a place in the Parliament. I think the political system is better for the energy and innovation that is implicit in their formation, and given a certain level of support – perhaps a 5% threshold – they should have the advantage of office.
I appreciate that the issue here goes to that of fragmentation and the need for unity in the face of a crisis, yet it seems to me a liberal democracy should be prepared to be pluralistic and be capable of negotiation, rather than edict from the central office.
Georgie had a good question about the way the distribution of the Senate voting worked. Her question can be rephrased: How come Family First received just 2% of the primary vote but won the sixth place in Victoria, whereas the Greens received 8% of the primary vote.
Here is my exercise to try and verbalize the system: It is a party list and a quota system. The quota for a State is 14.3%, calculated using the Droop Quota. Once a candidate achieves a quota, the surplus votes are distributed according to a mathematical formula, transfer value, to give a fair distribution of preferences, but usually this means they flow down the party list.In practice this means that the first four candidates elected are from the two leading candidates on each of the major party lists. At this point in the count if none of the major parties has received more than 42.9% of the primary votes(ie three quotas), the votes for all candidates are distributed, with candidates being eliminated one by one. The preferences of the eliminated candidates are distributed to the remaining candidates as surplus votes until a quota is achieved and the fifth candidate is elected.This is the point at which Georgie’s question kicks in. The sixth place is decided in the same way as a single member preference distribution in which the person who wins the most primary votes, or even a greater number of primary votes than another candidate may not win because votes for a candidate can accumulate a majority of votes with the flow-on of the preferences from the eliminated candidates.
Wikipedia has a better explanation using the results of the Senate vote for NSW in 1998. The explanation given for Hare-Clark for the ACT pretty much covers the counting for the Senate as well (it is a simpler, and therefore better explanation than my attempt) The further point, which lies behind Georgie’s question is that the Senate quota does not work as the thresholds as for example that apply in Germany Bundestag (5%) and Israel’s Knesset (from memory 2%).