A few weeks ago, I received a call from a friend telling me he had two tickets to Q&A at Docklands on 21 March if I’d like to go. I enthusiastically accepted, having missed out the last time the show was in Melbourne. I didn’t think I’d send through a question – I had a thesis to work on and was glad just to have the chance to experience my love-hate for the show in person.
Besides, no great questions came to mind.
Then, late one night, as I was taking a break from research and scouring through social media, I got riled up over the ALP’s response to the recently passed changes to the Senate voting system.
For those who don’t know, the government recently made changes to the way we vote for the Senate. In the past, you had the choice to vote above or below the line. Above-the-line voting meant choosing one party and numbering them ‘1’. Your preferences would would go to whomever your number one chose. Weird things could happen as a result – for example, Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party in Victoria gained a seat with only 0.5 per cent of the vote. If you chose to vote below the line, you had to number all the boxes below the line.
There were usually around a hundred boxes, so it was a tedious choice, and only around three per cent of voters did so. Also, many of these votes were declared informal because people didn’t do it correctly.
The recent changes mean that you are allowed to order your preferences in the boxes above the line. The Greens supported the legislation but the Labor Party opposed it.
Not thinking much of it, I sent through a question to Daniel Andrews. The next thing I knew, it had been shortlisted for the show and I was on national TV.
On Q&A, the premier did so many of us Victorians proud, particularly with his strong support for the Safe Schools program. I thought, given his tendency to stick to his own guns and take positions on issues such as asylum seekers that don’t sit so well with the party’s national agenda, Andrews might respond in a more complex and thoughtful way.
I wasn’t satisfied.
When I asked Andrews what he thought about the Senate voting reform, I pointed out that his federal counterparts had been going after the Greens for supporting it, even though the reform has been Greens policy for more than a decade. I said, despite this, they had been calling it a “dirty deal” and talking about a new LNP-Greens coalition. I also said that many within the Labor Party who had been condemning the reform actually supported it themselves until not so long ago.
Although Andrews acknowledged my question was an important one, and was far more reasonable on the topic than others in the party, he didn’t really address it properly.
“I think we do better – and we’re proof positive of that – if we’ve got more voices representing lots of different groups, lots of different perspectives,” he said. “It makes you work harder to win the argument. … Over this last year and a half, everything of significance has gone through the Upper House. We’ve got Shooters, Sex Party MPs, we’ve got the Greens of course, independents, DLP. This notion that you can’t work unless you’ve got a majority in both houses – well, Victoria puts the lie to that.”
I tried to re-enter the discussion but was unable to. However, the Silver Fox himself, Tony Jones, did respond with some of my concerns.
“Surely, in government, you wouldn’t welcome a situation where people with a handful of votes can get to hold the balance of power in the Upper House due to the efforts of vote whisperers and very complex preference deals,” he said.
The problem with Andrews’ answer is that it follows the assumption that people who vote above the line won’t do so preferentially and therefore there will be less diversity in the Senate. By this logic, the reform is not the problem, the problem is diversity in the senate. And the answer to this question is not to condemn reform that gives the public more democratic power, but to educate the public about the changes and make them aware of the control they now have over where their vote goes.
It is okay to have concerns about the diversity of the Senate, but it should also be acknowledged that the new arrangements don’t have to lead to that. They can actually make for a better democracy without complex preference deals if voters vote preferentially above the line and don’t allow their votes to go to waste. This is where the focus should be, not on pointless bickering and on assuming Australian voters won’t vote in the representatives they deserve.
Regardless of whether you see the vitriol federal members of the Labor Party have been spitting for what it is, with a potential double dissolution election looming, it is important that these changes are communicated well. This is the new system now, it is what we have to work with come July, and it can improve our democracy and allow for a far more representative Senate – we just have to make it so.