Who Opposes Senate Reform and Why — An Exercise in Self-Interest

Osman Faruqi
Mar 1, 2016 · 7 min read

Politics is about self-interest. Governments do things because it’s in their direct political interest, or because it’s in the interest of those they represent. Oppositions oppose things for the same reason. This is generally how policy is formulated and laws are passed (or blocked).

The recent proposals to reform the way the Senate is elected are no different. There’s been a pretty furious debate playing out in Parliament and in the media, with most of the usual actors getting involved — unions, think tanks, lobbyists etc. I personally don’t think the public is super engaged in the ins and outs of electoral reform, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an important issue that warrants attention and scrutiny.

When the reforms were first proposed nearly two years ago, various sectional interests began shopping around analysis and modelling purporting to show the impact on the makeup of the Parliament.

Those working on behalf of various micro parties put forward modelling showing that their bosses would be wiped out. Labor figures leaked their own analysis that showed the reforms would lead to a Coalition majority. For full disclosure, I too played a role in ensuring certain modelling entered the public sphere, showing the reforms would have the opposite effect and actually boost the strength of Labor and the Greens in the Senate.

These competing bits of analysis, all reported by the media, have helped set the terms of the debate. Unfortunately, I think they’ve overshadowed other significant factors that warrant greater scrutiny and public attention.

Self-interest is definitely driving the agenda of everyone in the debate, to different extents, but it generally isn’t about who is going to win the most seats at the next election or in a double dissolution scenario.

I think the only actors mainly driven by the base desire to hold on to their Senate seats are the micro parties — people like David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day and Ricky Muir, as well as the folk they rely on to get elected like Glenn Druery (who organised the ‘minor party alliance’ preference orgy at the last federal election). Reforming the Senate effectively kills off their chance of getting elected through elaborate preference swaps, so they are desperate to retain the status quo. But there are more interesting motivations behind the positions held by the major parties and the Greens.

Labor’s position is most worthy of scrutiny given their internal divisions on the issue. The accepted narrative is that the party is opposing reforms due to concerns it would deliver total control to the Coalition. The union movement has echoed these concerns in a tag-team campaign targeting the Greens. But given that a number of senior Labor figures publicly support the reforms and the fact that seasoned electoral experts like Antony Green have rejected the assertion it will see the Coalition gain a Senate majority, what’s really going on?

The fact that the most vocal opponents of the changes within Labor are Sam Dastyari and Stephen Conroy is telling. Both are seasoned backroom operators who ran factional machines in NSW and Victoria respectively. They are also both adept preference negotiators who exert significant power within the current system. Conroy masterminded the now infamous preference deal that saw Family First elected off the back of Labor preferences. The biggest beneficiaries of the current system are the people in each party who control preference flows. They get to decide which parties are in or out, and in many instances, who gets elected to Parliament. In the Labor party, that’s people like Conroy and Dastyari.

But there’s another issue at play, one that has barely received any media attention. And it’s got nothing to do with the Senate, it’s actually all about the House of Representatives, where government is formed.

Here’s what happens in the lead up to a federal election: The Greens, who generally don’t poll quite enough to reach a Senate seat in their own right, ask the Labor party to give them their Senate preferences, so when a Labor candidate misses out, those votes transfer to the Greens to get them elected. Labor agrees, but only if the Greens recommend to voters in a swag of marginal House of Representatives seats that they in turn preference Labor ahead of the Coalition. A bit of haggling ensues, the Greens consult their members in local branches, but because the party needs Labor Senate preferences to get elected, the deal is generally done.

With Senate reform all of this changes. Labor will no longer be able to tightly control its preference flow to the Greens, and the Greens will be more likely to win a Senate seat in their own right under the proposed new system. This means Labor loses its leverage in preference negotiations, and needs to come up with something else to offer the Greens — something it really doesn’t want to do.

The worst case scenario for Labor is that it can no longer compel the Greens into recommending preference in key marginal seats. This could have an impact in very close races. However, the Greens are still likely to want to negotiate some sort of deal with Labor as their voters prefer the party to the Coalition. In reality it means Labor is going to have to offer the Greens something more substantial.

To make matters even more complex, it’s not just the Greens that Labor will find it hard to deal with now. At the last federal election election they actually shafted the Greens in Queensland by doing a deal with the Katter Party instead. They traded their Senate preferences in return for Katter preferences in the House of Representatives, helping them secure more marginal seats. These sorts of deals become harder to do with Senate voting reform.

Conversely, it’s in the Liberal’s interest to push through with reform for the same reason — it limits Labor’s ability to do preference deals. Of course they’re also motivated by the fact that their Senators lost their seats to candidates like Ricky Muir despite receiving a much higher vote. But there is no doubt they would be aware of the implications the changes to Senate voting would have on the House of Representatives.

The Greens’ position is a bit trickier. The party has been pushing these changes for more than a decade, so it’s not opportunist for them to support them now. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some element of self-interest in it. At the last federal election, when Labor cut a deal with Bob Katter in Queensland (see above), they effectively killed off the chances of the Greens winning a Senate seat in that state. The writing was on a wall. Instead of hanging their hopes on successful preference deals, the Greens would much rather try and win based on actual votes. Despite state-by-state variances, the Greens are generally more likely to win Senate seats under the new model. This may explain the party’s decision to support the reforms at a timetable dictated to them by the government, something they have been criticised for by the union movement. They just don’t want to risk the reforms falling over.

The people in the Greens most supportive of the reforms are actually the party’s preference negotiators. They have seen first hand how ugly the process is. They control the preferences of over 1.5 million voters, they get to decide which MPs win and lose, who becomes a Senator and who doesn’t, and they construct complex webs of preference designed to maximise the chance of their candidate winning. Because they’ve seen it up close, they know how broken it is, and they’ve been advising the Greens to push for change for years.

That’s my assessment of the reasons behind each party’s position on Senate reform. Given the significant of the reform I’m surprised that more outlets haven’t delved into the gory details. The ABC, which has more journalists in Parliament than pretty much everyone else combined, has tended to focus on horse-race style reporting, regularly quoting Glenn Druery, who for some reason is never asked to declare his financial incentive in the debate. Given his business model relies on the old Senate system, it seems a pertinent question.

The Sydney Morning Herald has covered the issue for years and copped criticism from all sides, whenever it runs analysis and modelling showing different outcomes. Recently it has published (multiple times) selective results of polling commissioned by the union movement claiming that two-thirds of Greens voters oppose the changes. The polling was apparently conducted by Essential Research, but another poll published today, also by Essential Research, showed the opposite. There is nothing wrong with publishing polling and analysis, but when the results clearly don’t make sense journalists should interrogate them further rather than writing up straight reports with clear political agendas behind them.

The Guardian has pushed the Greens on apparent contradictions between the party’s policy and its specific position in relation to the government’s Senate reform bill. Journalism that goes deeper than the reporting of modelling and numbers pushed by partisan agendas is more likely to highlight where the self-interest really lies.

Osman Faruqi

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