Have the Greens become part of the establishment? It would appear so, judging by their push to deny micro parties the use of preference harvesting to get elected to the Senate.

The Greens, along with the major parties and Senator Nick Xenophon, have recommended in a parliamentary review of the 2013 federal electionthat party registration and Senate voting rules be changed. These changes will make it more difficult for micro parties to run and almost impossible for their candidates to be elected.

Reform of Senate voting has been on the Greens’ agenda for a while, with former party leader Bob Brown unsuccessfully calling for such changes in 2010. Brown advocated the scrapping of group voting tickets, the mechanism used for preference harvesting, because allowing “parties to lodge … their choice of preference flow has led to the dark art of manipulation of preferences for unwarranted electoral advantage”.

But what is “unwarranted electoral advantage” exactly? Is it an election result that is not truly reflective of voters’ intentions, such as being elected with only a small amount of the primary vote?

At the last federal election Motoring Enthusiasts’ Ricky Muir was elected with 17,122 votes, or 0.51 per cent of the state’s vote. In 1996 Bob Brown was elected to the Senate having secured 26,830 votes, or 8.68 per cent*, of the less populous state’s Senate vote. Both MPs made a start that fell considerably short of the 14.3 per cent quota. Obviously other parties’ preferences helped Brown get over the line, yet he describes the current system that allows parties to dictate preferences as “corrupting”.

Perhaps the issue is more that while the Greens rely on leaching the disenfranchised progressive vote from Labor, they are unhappy that a similar splintering of the right-wing vote away from the Coalition has delivered the balance of power to arch conservatives on a number of occasions.

One such conservative, Family First’s Steve Fielding, beat the Greens’ candidate for Victoria in 2004 after benefiting from a preference deal with Labor. Bob Day, the current representative of Family First in the Senate, was elected in 2013 as the direct result of a preference deal personally negotiated by Brown with representatives of the micro parties, Palmer United Party and Nick Xenophon.

Senator Day is only one of the eight crossbenchers who have made the Greens almost redundant in the current parliament – unless the progressive party chooses to vote with the Coalition Government on legislation, which is usually unlikely. Of that eight, only Muir and Day were elected predominantly through preference harvesting.

Other than risking the wrath of their constituency by doing deals with the Government, the only other way the Greens can be relevant in the current parliament is to make allegiances with Labor and at least three members of the crossbench to block Government legislation.

This is a long way from the power-broking position the party held during the Gillard era. Nevertheless, such allegiances can be achieved, as the Labor-initiated but Xenophon-led “coalition of common sense”demonstrated last year.

It’s all very well for the Greens, and the major parties for that matter, to claim the proposed reforms would make Senate voting more “democratic” by returning power over preferences to the voters. In reality, the changes merely strengthen the position of the established parties, including the Greens.

The only voters who seemingly demonstrate independence in allocating their preferences are Greens voters. Labor and Coalition voters are more likely to follow their party’s how-to-vote instructions, and these instructions have increasingly directed preferences away from the Greens (especially after the Greens first lower house MP Adam Bandt was elected on Liberal preferences in 2010).

The Greens are hopeful that if Senate voting was changed to optional preferential voting, Labor and Coalition voters might be more inclined to allocate their preference to the Greens – even if it was against the major parties’ wishes. Perhaps that would occur.

However, the ABC’s resident psephologist Antony Green has calculated that under such an optional preferential voting system, the last federal election would have produced two more Senate seats for the Coalition, two more for Labor, one more for Xenophon and one less for the Greens, leaving only three independents/others. So it’s easy to see why the major parties and Xenophon are keen on the changes too.

The proposed Senate voting changes are less about democracy than they are about keeping our democracy politically “tidy”. It would be fair to say established political interests wouldn’t have advocated these changes if non-establishment senators hadn’t used their balance of power to hold governments to ransom or thwart parliamentary opposition in recent years.

The calculation would undoubtedly be that the less micro party and independent MPs there are in parliament, the less chance there is for marginal interests to have a say. It’s only when such a marginal voice is that of an honourable and thoughtful Senator like Ricky Muir, that the calculation becomes nonsensical and transparently about protecting vested interests.

The Greens like to differentiate themselves by describing the major parties as old and obsolescent, but they too have become part of the mouldering establishment. By resisting the pathways for fresh talent to enter the parliament with protestations about “improving” democracy, they are doing little more than defending the status quo.