Same-sex Marriage and Senate Voting Reform.

Malcolm Turnbull’s position: A plebiscite for one and a vote in the Parliament for the other. Stalling on one, rushing the other one through.

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 A gay couple discusses parliamentary reform

Malcolm Turnbull and his predecessor Tony Abbott were both  trying to stall legislation of same-sex marriage with the idea of a plebiscite in the hope that the issue would go away.

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 Abbott and Turnbull trying to find a way out of the same-sex marriage question

While the Prime Minister insists we have a plebiscite on gay marriage when public opinion is quite clearly known, he is unwilling to allow the public to have a say on the way they elect their politicians.

Best to let the politicians decide that!

Reforming the system for voting for the Australian Senate provides an opportunity for a “conversation” on the kind of Senate we want, if we want one at all.

Changes to the system are likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event but they are being rushed through Parliament with very little debate and public discussion.

Unfortunately, the voting public has not been invited to the table for this debate.

There is a fundamental question that has not been asked.

Do we need a Senate at all?

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  Paul Keating was quite clear. He called the Senators “unrepresentative swill.

The fundamental idea underlying a bicameral system such as we have in Australia and in the US is that the upper house serves as a brake on the lower house. It is designed to slow the progress of change and protect people against the excesses and vagaries of elected governments.

 In both Australia and the US, senators are elected for six years in a series of staggered elections. In the US, members of the lower house Congress are elected every two years, in Australia it’s every three. So changing the lower house is much easier than changing the upper house.

This means that bringing about change in the upper house is a much slower process. It also means that the upper house may become out of touch with the political realities of the lower house.

So the question for Australians is whether we want an upper house that has the potential to frustrate the House of Representatives.  Before the rise of the Australian Democrats, the Greens, Palmer United and a host of independent Senators, this was not normally the case.

But as disillusion and dissatisfaction with the major parties grows in Australia, minority parties and independents are gaining increasing political traction and exercising increasing influence in the upper houses of state and federal parliament.

Part of the debate on the reform of the Senate voting should include an extensive and informed public debate on whether we want a Senate at all.

After that particular question is decided, then the debate on the nature of the Senate can begin.

When it comes to reforming the Senate, it’s worth remembering that there are what are called “frozen accidents” in the system. Frozen accidents are historical events and decisions that cannot be easily changed but which have consequences that were not intended originally.

The first problem is that the Founding Fathers meant the Senate to be the “States’ House.”  It was designed to protect the previously independent states from the power of the Federal Government.

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The opening of the Parliament of Australia, 9 May 1901, ushered in a system that has probably outlived its usefulness.

It no longer fulfils that function and is elected purely along party lines.

The second problem is that the distribution of Senate seats by state is dramatically biased towards Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory. Representation of the more populous main land states is biased in inverse order of population.

So the first question is: Do we want a system that is biased towards the smaller states given that the Senate’s function as the states’ house is no longer relevant?

Here of the voting figures by state for 2013 Senate election.

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If the fundamental principle underlying democracy is that there should be  equal representation, then this problem needs to be fixed

And then there is the question of party representation.

Here are the figures for the Senate  in the 2013 election.

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On the basis of votes cast, some parties do better than others. The ALP got its fair share in the last election. The Coalition, the Greens, Palmer United, Family First Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party all did better than their vote would justify.

The Liberal Democratic Party polled particularly well but its elected senator David Leyonhjelm admits that this is because he was first on the ballot paper and got the donkey vote and also that people thought they were voting for the Liberal party.

It is interesting that nearly 1.4 million voters (slightly over 10%) have no representation in the Senate. It is this large block of votes that the preference whisperer, Glenn Druery, is able to manipulate to elect members of minor parties.

These are the issues that are fundamental to reform of the Senate voting system. It is crucially important that the Australian electorate remains confident that its democratic system is serving the needs of the people.

The profound sense of disillusion with the political system in America, seen with the rise of the Tea Party and candidates like Donald Trump, represents a step towards political chaos that Australians need to guard against.

It is quite clear to most people that Malcolm Turnbull is rushing these changes through to improve his chances in a double dissolution election. Changes to the fundamental political structures in Australia are serious and have long-term consequences. They should be widely debated and discussed before they are implemented.

Currently, this is not happening and the Australian electorate deserves better.

 

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