Greens become the very thing they rebelled against

Greens become the very thing they rebelled against

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.

The end of the Age of Clive

And then there was one. In the Senate, at least.

Palmer United Party’s Glenn Lazarus announced overnight that he’d left PUP to become an independent, leaving the party with only one vote in the upper house.

Lazarus made the announcement via Facebookand Twitter just after midnight, noting this was a difficult decision and hinting at irreconcilable differences with party leader Clive Palmer:

I have a different view of team work. Given this, I felt it best that I resign from the party and pursue my Senate role as an independent Senator.

A media report suggests Lazarus took this action after his wife was sacked as his chief of staff.

The departure of Lazarus leaves Palmer with only former employee Dio Wang in the Senate and next to no negotiating power compared to what he wielded in that chamber for a few tumultuous months in 2014.

Since his election to the Australian Parliament in 2013, Palmer’s power has not come from his single vote in the House of Representatives but from the three-vote bloc that he controlled in the Senate. Since the new Senate commenced on July 1, 2014 with the eight-Senator crossbench, the Government had to secure six votes from the crossbench to pass any legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. However, only three votes were needed to block any such legislation.

This essentially gave Palmer the right of veto, and played to his grandiose perceptions of importance and influence.

Only those delusions could explain Palmer’s decision to share the stage with former US vice-president Al Gore to announce a “dormant” emissions trading scheme while simultaneously committing to scrap the carbon tax.

Only an overwhelming sense of self-worth could have produced Palmer’s trenchant statements of opposition to a panoply of government policies, followed by audaciously nonchalant changes of course when the political headwinds shifted.

This inconsistent and autocratic style would have been less an issue if Palmer had been the sole PUP member of Parliament. However it is difficult to manage a party using only tyranny and cronyism.

It may well have only been a matter of time before PUP’s tyro senators began to better appreciate their individual power and got an increasing urge to use it, but Palmer’s overbearing “my way or the highway” style would have undoubtedly contributed to their restlessness.

Former PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie was the first of the party’s federal MPs to expose the dissent behind PUP’s shiny yellow façade. After Palmer was less than effusive about her proposed “burqa” ban, called her a drama queen over her campaign to improve defence force pay, and then suspended her from attending PUP party room meetings, Lambie moved to sever ties with the man who bankrolled her campaign.

In truth, Lambie was never a good fit for PUP. Her penchant for straight-talking and reluctance to toe the party line made her a likely candidate for leaving Palmer’s eponymous party.

But the man who left PUP today would have been considered much less likely to do so. If there’s one thing the former rugby league hero lacks, it’s certainly not the capacity for loyalty. His fidelity to family and the voters of Queensland certainly sit comfortably with the report that the sacking of his wife forced Lazarus’ hand.

For his part, Palmer might not particularly care. Having witnessed the defeat of his nemesis, former Queensland premier Campbell Newman at the recent state election, and the ongoing electoral deterioration of his other foe PM, Tony Abbott, Palmer may well feel his work here is done. His attendance record in the Parliament certainly doesn’t indicate a burning desire to participate or contribute.

This might be just as well, considering Palmer is no longer the media’s darling, partly because he’s no longer particularly relevant but also because he treats the press with impunity. His recent “accidental” call for Abbott to commit (political) suicide was not indulged as it once might have been, and instead was called out for being the desperate ploy for media attention that it was.

The trajectory of Palmer’s hobby-political party has now followed that of his hobby-football team. After recruiting a number of disaffected conservative MPs from other parties in Queensland and the Northern Territory, and then losing them again, PUP has gone from controlling a peak of nine MPs around the country to two – Senator Dio Wang and Palmer himself.

PUP offered voters an alternative to the major parties and a commonsense approach to contentious policies. But in truth it was nothing more than the hollow sales pitch of a white-shoed wannabe.

For the good of the nation, let’s hope today’s departure of Lazarus from the Palmer United Party brings an ignominious close to the Age of Clive in Australian politics.

Will 2015 see the rise or fall of crossbenchers?

The ministry reshuffle earlier this month may help draw a line under the Abbott Government’s unedifying first year, allowing it to make a fresh start (of sorts) as it prepares for the 2015 budget.

No assistance in this renewal process will be offered, however, from the Senate crossbenchers. This motley crew of independent, micro and minor party senators, whose only connection is a shared resolve to achieve their disparate political objectives, will continue to play merry hell with the Government and its attempts to be seen to be back in control.

Voters whose views align with one or more of the crossbenchers’ niche agendas call this democracy in action. Those who disagree call it a perversion of the majority rule that is meant to underpin democracy. Either way, this is the Abbott Government’s political reality, and one that it must come to terms with in 2015.

Minor and micro parties have been a part of Australian politics since 1910. While more than 650 have existed at one time or another, only a handful have endured for more than a couple of elections.

Yet in recent times voter support for the two major parties has declined with an attendant rise in support for minor parties and in the number of people who vote informally or not at all.

This has involved a turnaround in community views about the role of minor and micro parties since the Gillard years, at which time the Greens and independents that had helped Julia Gillard form government were blamed for imposing a carbon tax on the economy as part of the deal.

Barely weeks after Gillard announced the details of the carbon price deal in February 2011 only 27 per cent of voters thought the independents and Greens holding the balance of power in Parliament had been good for Australia, while 41 per cent thought it had been bad. Three years later, that proportion had barely changed; just before the crossbench took up its new pivotal role on July 1, 2014 still only 28 per cent of voters thought the Greens holding the balance of power had been good (and 37 per cent bad) for the nation.

Even though voters had become more optimistic about the new minor party crossbench immediately after the 2013 election, they then became reticent as the time approached for the new Senate to commence.

And yet after all the shenanigans of the year just past, due in no small part to the antics of Clive Palmer and his PUPs in the Senate, a follow-up opinion poll earlier this month found 36 per cent of voters now see the crossbench having the balance of power as being a good thing, while only 26 per cent see it negatively.

This trend raises the question whether the Senate crossbench is a passing phase in protest against the dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott years or the beginning of a fundamental shift away from the two-party system.

Various theories are advanced for the major parties’ loss of electoral favour. One is that they have lost touch with traditional voters by adopting policies that are more attractive to mercurial swinging voters in the mortgage belts.

Another is that an influx of the professional political elite such as former political advisers, party apparatchiks and trade union leaders has infested the parliament with cookie-cutter MPs with little “real life” experience or associated empathy with voters.

And then there is the hollowing out of political communication, in which risk-averse politicians and their advisers reduce every public utterance to a glib sound-grab in the hope of getting traction in the relentlessly veracious news cycle without letting slip an opinion, fact or commitment that could be brought back later to haunt them.

These theories help explain the popularity of the colourful, outspoken and somewhat unpolished independent, micro and minor party senators who now make up the crossbench. Their shoot-from-the-hip approach to political strategy and refusal to mince words are seen as a refreshing change from what the major parties have served up even when the crossbenchers’ (often extreme) policies are particularly disconcerting.

And it has to be said that many voters have enjoyed the spectacle of the Prime Minister having to contend with the disruption that an obstructionist crossbench has delivered. This in itself could be responsible for the lift in support of the crossbenchers.

But is it enough for the Parliament to provide entertainment for voters and wreak retribution on their behalf, particularly when this can be accompanied by horse-trading that make fringe policies a reality? Or do voters ultimately want the stability and predictability that major parties bring?

If the trend in favour of the minor parties and independents is more a transient protest against the instability and poor behaviour of the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott years, voters may be prepared to return to the major parties if they can actually act like grownups. This may be a factor in the positive turnaround of federal Labor’s support since the election.

The expectation that voters would prefer to return stability to the Senate may also be the reason why the prospect of a double dissolution election is still being kept alive.

Whether one chooses to call the current state of play democracy or its warped and shadowy cousin, something in Australian politics will have to give in 2015: either the Government’s hardline approach to economic reform, Labor and the Greens’ equally uncompromising style, or the crossbenchers’ hold on the balance of power.

The outcome will depend entirely upon whether voters’ fascination with the non-major political players is a relic of the past or a sign of the future.

Whether we return to the major parties’ status quo or to the permanent disruption of minor and micro parties, this will be an authentic renewal that will shape what our future democracy looks like.