Features Australia

Here we go again

The upcoming senate election in Western Australia shows Paul Keating was right: the upper house is unrepresentative swill

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

 ‘The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.’ — Joseph Stalin
Perhaps in Russia, but in the last Western Australian election, neither the voters nor the counters decided anything. So, here we go again. Down here in Margaret River, my neighbours can barely contain their anticipation. What a great way to spend $20 million! Of course, it will be hard to top the last election for sheer whimsy — missing ballots, multiple recounts and dozens of zany candidates — but early signs suggest this one will be just as bad.

This is not exactly surprising; after all, nothing has changed. The ludicrous election rules — which permit a candidate to be elected when 99.75 per cent of voters prefer someone (anyone) else — are still in place. All it takes to get elected is for a few absent-minded voters to forget to bring their spectacles to the polls. Faced with the tiny print required to accommodate more than 60 candidates on a single ballot paper, some of these nearsighted electors accidentally tick the wrong box, and a new senator jets off to a cushy all-expenses-paid life in Canberra.

Electing senators who hardly attract any votes may not seem very democratic (it isn’t), but the candidate selection process is a model of impartiality. Anyone can be a chosen to run for the Senate. More than 50 years ago a Bulletin writer described Senate candidates as alcoholics, adventurers, seedy individuals, eccentrics and ‘weirdoes’. I will leave it up to others to decide whether this description is still accurate. One thing seems certain, obscurity, mediocrity and sheer silliness provide no barrier to running (or, it seems, to being elected).

In the months since the last election, press comment focused on the missing ballots and the shady backroom preference-swapping deals. Yet there was little public outcry. It is sad to say, but most West Australians quietly accepted the notion that ballots could mysteriously vanish. And there is no reason why it could not happen again. As Stalin knew, there are many ways to rig the count. In Chicago, for example, cemeteries always seem to empty out on polling day. This famous zombie voter phenomenon prompted one New York congressman to quip: ‘When I die, I want to be buried in Chicago, so I can still be active in politics.’

Paper ballots are especially easy to rig; there are endless opportunities as ballots move from place to place. Modern technology could make voting more secure, cheaper and efficient, but modernisation is not even on the agenda. I can buy a car, transfer thousands of dollars from my bank to the car dealer, purchase insurance, take out a car loan and book my next holiday using my smart phone, but I can only vote by ticking a box on a piece of easily ‘misplaced’ piece of paper.

Ironically, the huge cost of the coming election will be expended on electing members to one of the least democratic bodies imaginable. Based in part on the United States Senate, the Australian version was created to allay the smaller colonies’ fears of domination in the House of Representatives. The Senate’s power has grown over the years, and the method of election has evolved along with it, but it still remains strikingly unrepresentative. For example, two million or so West Australians have the same influence on the make-up of the Senate as New South Wales’s seven million and Tasmania’s 500,000.

To quote Paul Keating, this ‘unrepresentative swill’ may have once been useful in protecting the smaller states, but today’s senators vote along party lines, even when this works against their own state’s interests. The Greens, for example, want to remove the states’ powers in environmental matters making the environment the responsibility of the central government. Far from seeing their role as protecting states’ rights, the Greens want to override the power of the states.

Because of the peculiar nature of the Senate election process, minor parties exert more power than their votes warrant in a democratically elected parliament. The result is that, despite their small number of votes, the Australian Democrats (remember them?) and the Greens have often thwarted the agenda of the government of the day.

Minor party senators and independents, if they are lucky enough to hold the balance of power, can hold a government to ransom for the benefit of their electors. Senator Brian Harradine, for example, made sure that huge amounts of money wound up in Tasmania. This made him a local hero, but it also made it clear to voters in other states just how unfair our political arrangements are.

The Senate is not a protector of states’ rights nor is it representative of the nation’s population. Its functions overlap those of the House of Representatives and the electoral system is ridiculous. So, why do we bother with a Senate? Why not just abolish it? It would save lots of money and make Australia more democratic. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and it is unlikely that the Senate would agree to the necessary referendum, but there are ways around this and the debate would do our democracy good.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Steven Schwartz is the executive director of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

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