The Politics    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Dirty deals damage democracy

By Rachel Withers

Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton are seen seated opposite each other in Question Time. Albanese is smiling. Dutton has his back turned.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during Question Time in the House of Representatives, June 21, 2023. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

There isn’t much time to stop a bipartisan deal that many believe would entrench the two-party system

It is by now well known that the major parties are working on an electoral reform deal that many fear could disadvantage community independents. The deal – which Labor numbers man Don Farrell began working on long before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters handed down its final report yesterday – would see sweeping changes to spending rules, including a lowering of the donation disclosure threshold, and caps on donations and spending (including for “third parties” such as Climate 200). There are nuanced arguments for and against caps, though most would agree that it’s important to get “big money” out of politics. But as Mike Seccombe reported in The Saturday Paper last month, there is a great deal of cynicism about what is going on here. Many suspect Labor and the Coalition are teaming up to implement reforms that advantage existing parties, neutralising their respective threats (Clive Palmer and the teals) in order to preserve the “duopoly”. The Labor-dominated electoral committee has now handed down its recommendations, meaning legislation won’t be far off. Is the government really going to do a “dirty deal” with the Coalition on this, compromising what the community wants in order to protect their declining primaries? 

Unfortunately, it seems likely to happen, despite the desperate warnings of the crossbench. Speaking to media after the report dropped yesterday, independent MP Kate Chaney and ACT Senator David Pocock urged Labor against doing a deal with the Coalition, noting the government could instead work with the crossbench and the Greens “to put together an electoral reform package that meets the needs of the community”. Pocock, in particular, seemed concerned that Labor would need to compromise on its recommendation to double the number of ACT and NT senators, to which the Coalition is strongly opposed. Other reforms may also get the chop in a deal, including truth in political advertising laws, if Labor chooses to prioritise the duopoly over what is best for the nation.

Of course, deals both big and small get done all the time in Canberra, as each party or individual seeks to use the numbers to their advantage. (Labor, for example, has today done a deal with the disgraced Senator David Van in order to get his support on its Murray–Darling Basin legislation, after successfully reaching an agreement with the Greens.) That’s the way the cookie crumbles in a multi-party, bicameral democracy. But it’s when those deals are about electoral reform – about parties teaming up to cement their own positions, rigging the system in a way that makes it harder for new entrants to fairly compete – that we ought to be paying very close attention. Juice Media, the group behind the satirical “Honest Government Ad” videos, has put it quite clearly in this very sharp summary. It concludes with a message proclaiming: “Authorised by the Department for Rigging the Rules of the Game Instead of Trying to Win it by being Less-Shit.”

That might be the most worrying thing about this potential deal. With Australians increasingly frustrated by the major parties and primary votes falling, it seems the two-party system is starting to break down. But rather than reflect on why they are losing votes to independents and minor parties, rather than trying to do better, Labor’s preference is apparently to limit the power of new entrants to get involved, protecting a system that is already massively rigged in their favour.

Will Labor do this deal with the Coalition? The government could still decide to deal with the crossbench instead, putting forward policies that are about making the system fairer (though it’s worth remembering that independents also have their own agendas). But there isn’t much to stop a major party deal, if that is what the government decides to do. It will say a lot about the Labor Party if it opts to do a deal with the Coalition, and in doing so protect the interests of a man most can agree is a danger to our democracy, if it means protecting their own.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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