The view from Billinudgel

Unrepresentative still
The senate voting reforms should be welcomed by all parties

Democracy, said Winston Churchill, is the worst system of government – except for all the other ones.

And he was right: democracy can be slow, inefficient and infuriating to the point where even the best-intentioned can be tempted to try something else. But as history has shown, any attempt at replacement invariably ends in tears.

So democracy has to be sustained, nurtured and at times improved, which is precisely what the proposed amendments to the senate voting system will do. To any objective observer they are simply a no-brainer: by allowing, or even compelling, preferential voting above the line, the changes will let voters make an informed choice, rather than the present system in which the party groupings are tailored and manipulated for their own advantage.

The party tickets are, in theory, public; but they are not all that easy to find and are all but impossible for a layman (or indeed an expert) to decipher. This has resulted in the gaming of the system, in which the election of tiny minorities can win office in what is essentially a lottery, designed by those who have an interest in exploiting whatever loopholes they can locate.

To let the voters more easily express what they actually intend when they mark the ballot paper can only be a step forward – perhaps a small one, but nonetheless one to be applauded.

The minority senators themselves, of course, are screaming foul; they, after all, are the ones who may lose their sinecures. Some of them have, against the odds, been at least partially successful, but to be elected again they will now have to earn it, rather than draw it out of a hat.

And absurdly and shamefully the ALP, which should be championing the cause of democracy, is muttering about a dirty deal between the Liberals and the Greens and intends to oppose the measure. Sam Dastyari, the former apparatchik whose commitment to democracy is not exactly obsessive, is worried that the change might give some advantage to the conservative parties – well, so what?  These things happen; if the conservatives gain, they will do so because the public wants them to. There may be an element of self interest in the bills before the parliament, and there is certainly a touch of opportunism in that they are being pushed through to clear the decks for a possible double dissolution. But whatever self interest there may be, the public interest in improving the senate – and in improving the democratic system in the process – is overwhelming.

There are those who feel that it is just not worth the effort, and who yearn for a more decisive, less compromising form of government. They should remember the warnings of the Greeks: the system of tyranny is only as good as the worst man who can become a tyrant. Or, in the words of WH Auden, in ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand
And was greatly interested in armies and in fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter;
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Get it, Senator Dastyari?

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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