In reply to Guy Rundle's Quarterly Essay, Clivosaurus: The politics of Clive Palmer.



Malcolm Mackerras

According to my assessment, Australia has a dozen psephologists: eleven men and one woman, South Australia’s Jenni Newton-Farrelly. If we rank these twelve people from most advocating reform to least advocating reform, we would have Rundle at one extreme and myself at the other. Australia’s current best-known and most prolific psephologist, Antony Green, would be placed halfway between us.

I accept Rundle’s claim that all his advocacy of reform is based on democratic principles, and I would assert that of myself also. I would not say that about Green. In my view, his advocacy of reform is based on the idea that Australia has three worthy parties – the Liberal Party, the Australian Labor Party and the Greens – and ten unworthy parties: the National Party, the Family First Party, the Palmer United Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Shooters and Fishers Party, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, the Australian Sex Party, the Dignity for Disability party, the Democratic Labour Party and the Vote 1 Local Jobs party. According to Green’s view (at least as I interpret it), these latter parties get their seats in state upper houses by gaming the system. If they do not actually engage in that nasty practice themselves, they defend electoral systems that help other unworthy parties to engage in that practice.

Let me consider a case to illustrate my point. In March 2014 the Labor government of Jay Weatherill won a South Australian general election by gaming the system. Then, in December, it converted its win as a minority government into a majority, by the luck of winning the electoral district of Fisher at a by-election. It did that after winning a mere 47 per cent of the two-party preferred vote in March, compared with 53 per cent won by the Liberal Party. How would these three psephologists react to that?

Rundle would say, “Yes, of course it was a case of Labor gaming the system. It is a rotten system which must be abandoned in favour of proportional representation.” I would say, “Yes, of course it was a case of Labor gaming the system, but radical change is not needed. At some future date, South Australia will get a government not tainted as being illegitimate.” Meanwhile, Green would not say that Labor gamed the system at all. For him, the only ones “gaming the system” – to gain their upper house seats – are those parties he deems unworthy.

However, coming back to Rundle, I wish to refute any suggestion by him or anyone else that any of the three PUP senators could be said to be in the Senate courtesy of their gaming the system. It is true, however, that none of them received a quota on the first count.

Glenn Lazarus received 9.9 per cent in Queensland, which is a high number, more than two-thirds of a quota. No one has suggested that there was anything unfair about his election.

Jacqui Lambie received 6.6 per cent in Tasmania. Hers was a low absolute number of votes because Tasmania is our least populous state. Yet we have all these people (mainly in the business community) calling for a threshold. The standard demand is for 5 per cent, as in New Zealand. Lambie would have been elected even if there had been a 5 per cent threshold. Green has written that the third Liberal candidate, Sally Chandler, was democratically entitled to the seat. His argument is that the Liberal Party group won 2.63 quotas, while the PUP group won only 0.46 of a quota. That is a reasonable proposition, I suppose. However, Australia has a candidate-based electoral system and the first preference vote for Lambie was 21,794, while that for Chandler was 637. It could be said that both Lambie and Chandler engaged in preference harvesting, but Lambie was more successful. She finished with 55,571 votes, compared to 39,906 for Chandler.

Before I consider the case of Dio Wang, I ask myself: why do we have a candidate-based electoral system? To that question, I answer: because our constitution commands it. Section 7 of the Australian Constitution states: “The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting … as one electorate.” Were we to have a party-list system (as New Zealand has for its House of Representatives), our politicians would not be “directly chosen by the people.” They would be appointed by party machines. The role of the electorate under a party-list system is merely to distribute numbers of seats among the parties according to their proportions of the effective votes. I say “effective votes,” because many votes are thrown into the rubbish bin by the thresholds that apply in such systems.

Reverting to Clive Palmer, however, the most interesting case of his senators is Wang in Western Australia. In respect of the September 2013 election, he received exactly 5 per cent of the formal vote and was not declared elected. So he appealed to the High Court sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns. Justice Kenneth Hayne, being the court, declared the entire election void and ordered a re-run. At that election, Wang received 12.3 per cent, which was quite close to the quota of 14.3 per cent. No one has suggested that there was anything unfair about the result of the West Australian supplementary election.

Not only were the elections of these three senators (Lazarus, Lambie and Wang) fair, but the entire election result was fair.

Rundle finishes his section “Gaming the System” with this comment on page 65:

Palmer’s invocation of a centrist politics with strong roots in Australian political tradition came at a time when there was mass opposition to the budget that was attacking such measures, but an inability by Labor to give an overarching moral account of why such a budget was wrong. Clive Palmer could, but what he couldn’t do was switch out of the clownish mode that he had used to gain publicity during and after the 2013 election. That failure to project a more consistent and reasoned political style may have cost him his best chance to convert his freak win at the craps table of Australian democracy into a broader political movement.

I agree with that. Palmer engaged in a gamble. Just what else is new? His gamble came off, because he was elected as one of 150 members in the House of Representatives and he was able to get three senators elected – and their success fairly closely matched their share of the vote. The system, therefore, does not deserve the derision to which Rundle subjects it. Every election under every system is, to some extent, a crapshoot.

I come now to the final section of the essay, “Of Dinosaurs and Democracy.” In it, Rundle describes a highly unlikely outcome to the 2016 federal election and then goes on:

Maybe it will take an event of that magnitude to shake us from our complacency, our mistaking of torpor and disengagement for orderliness and legitimacy. If so, bring it on. But it would be better to start a conversation now, a real one, ranging across the country, about what sort of changes would make for a genuinely representative and more democratic system. That would involve discussion of multi-member electorates, voluntary voting, list systems, optional preferentiality, Senate thresholds, campaign spending, different models of public funding or its abolition altogether, the role of the governor-general, and beyond. Some of these measures face the near-impossible hurdle of a referendum, but many can be achieved by legislation. The most democratic way to re-ground Australian democracy would be for a series of such conversations to lead to a non-binding national plebiscite on proposals to reform our democracy, the results of which would guide subsequent bills in parliament. Any party that set itself against a manifest desire for change would expose itself as more committed to the system than to the popular will.

Sorry, Guy, but I cannot agree with that. For a start, half of those proposals would require changes to the Constitution. Not that I want to get into an argument on that. If the scenario you paint were to occur at the federal level, the reaction would be the same as was the case for that South Australian election, mentioned above. Perhaps there would be some tinkering. But it would be much more likely that the losers would say, “We have accepted this system, so we are willing to let the chips fall where they may.”

As a postscript, I note that earlier, while defending the South Australian electoral system, I wrote, “At some future date South Australia will get a government not tainted as being illegitimate.” As I wrote those words, I did not realise just how quickly I would be proved right. However, I insist that I have been proved right. Quite apart from the Fisher by-election, we had a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper on 31 December 2014. It showed the distribution of the two-party-preferred vote as 53/47 in Labor’s favour, compared with the reverse at the March general election. So, even with a result like that, and even with Labor’s naked gaming of the system, there is now a government in South Australia enjoying every bit as much legitimacy as the governments of all the other jurisdictions.

Malcolm Mackerras


This is a reply to Guy Rundle’s Quarterly Essay, Clivosaurus: The politics of Clive Palmer. To read the full essay, login, subscribe, or buy the book.


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