Australian Senate holds a debate on electoral reform for over 28 hours

18.04.2016 Wojciech Pawlus

Among democratic states, parliamentary systems differ greatly and there are many sophisticated methods, as well as reasons to hold a debate. However, what happened in the Senate of Australia on Thursday 18th March 2016 goes beyond measure of extraordinary. The senators assembled to discuss the Senate voting reforms and left the house 28 hours later on Friday 19th March. As Reuters reports “lawmakers, at least one dressed in pyjamas, employed delaying tactics aimed at breaking their opponents’ will”. The curious, Monthy Python-esque occurrence would have probably been taken by an average European as close to impossible, with Australia’s politics generally considered as well above-average in terms of stability. The roots of this legislative marathon can be found in the subject of the debate, to which Australian political parties attach great value.

Unlike in many post-Westminster Anglophone democracies, the Senate in Australia is a very powerful upper house of a bicameral parliament, with powers to overturn legislation issued by the House of Representatives. It is credited with stalling the progress of necessary economic reforms which have been advocated by the ruling coalition led by the Liberal Party ever since it came to power in 2013. This was primarily attributed to the outgoing voting system, which created a situation favourable to a lot of minor crossbenchers from fringe parties. These were being elected based not necessarily on the voters’ choices, but rather on the internal preference schemes declared by the parties themselves. As BBC puts it: “Australians can fill out their Senate voting ballot in two ways – “above the line” and “below the line”. Until today’s reforms, you selected just one party when you voted above the line. Your preferences were then distributed according to your selected party’s choice. Depending on how the votes fell, your vote could be allocated to a party you didn’t support. If you voted “below the line”, you needed to number every candidate running in the election according to your own preference. This sometimes meant numbering more than 100 boxes.”

In the current Senate of 76 seats, 18 are held by senators who neither support the government, nor the opposition. 10 of them represent the Green Party, which has played a traditional kingmaker role, as it has been providing the necessary votes allowing the proposed bills to pass. In spite of its position within the scheme, the Party is in favour of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s voting reform. The move was also welcomed by the independent senator Nick Xenophon, that very same one who entered the parliament in his pyjamas and made global headlines. Under the new rules, voters will be asked to name six parties “above the line” and their preference will not be decided automatically against their will. The reform is primarily orchestrated to curb the influence of theme-based micro-parties such as the Australian Motoring Enthusiast party, whose senator Ricky Muir was elected with only 0.51% of Victorian primary votes at the 2013 election. He accused the coalition of “power grab”. What dragged on the debate for so long however, was the strong opposition from the side of the Labor Party. While in principle, the main rival of the government is in favour of the proposed solutions, it fears that the reform will simply streamline the ruling party’s influence in the Senate and turn it into a “rubberstamp” body for whoever is in power. The polls are currently indicating a steady support for the Liberals among the Australian electorate. Labor Party Senate leaders Penny Wong and Stephen Conroy expressed their concern that the coalition will gain unlimited lawmaking capacity in the Senate following the procedural changes, or will only be dependant on Xenophon’s votes. On his part, Prime Minister Turnbull said that the reform benefits the voters first and foremost, by giving them more direct control on who they elect. “It’s a reform which will help ensure that future Senate election results truly reflect the will of the Australian people,” Finance Minister Mathias Bormann added.

After the end of the very long session, which was compared to a colonoscopy by Labor’s Glenn Sterl, the next meeting of the Senate was scheduled for May, when the state budget is due. It is expected that this will be brought forward by the government in an attempt to conduct double dissolution election, an occurrence which is rare in Australia, as parliament terms of both houses are not strictly correlated. For example in 2013 only half of the Senate seats were contested. Yet, in order for the obstructionists to go, the whole parliament will have to be rearranged. Prime Minister Turnbull has, under the rules of the constitution, until 11th May to dissolve the legislature. He still lacks one failed bill until this becomes lawful and hence he will aim to let a Labor’s proposal fail when the parliament assembles at an earlier date. If the chain of events works out according to the Liberals’ plan, the Australians will most likely be called to cast their ballots in June.

The events in the Australian Senate are a rather interesting twist, but one should expect heated discussion when the rules of democracy are at stake. It is worth observing how the reform of the Australian upper house enfolds, as such a process does not happen every year and will most likely provide a lot of lessons to be learned for the decision makers of the Western World.