Danger rests in confusion over Senate voting rules
by Ebony Bennett,
[Originally published in The Canberra Times, 04 May 2019]
Trust in politicians is at an all-time low, the national debate is coarse and toxic, and the bar for what is judged politically acceptable is so low now that it feels like a cockroach could clear it. It's not unique to this election, but it feels like there has been a steep decline in recent years.
This week commentator Greg Sheridan claimed the Greens "hate our society" and that there is "no moral difference between preferencing Clive Palmer, Pauline Hanson or the Greens".
Sheridan's comments do our democracy a great disservice, as did Nationals leader Michael McCormack, when he boasted that National Party policies are more closely aligned with One Nation than Labor or the Greens.
Former Nationals leaders like Tim Fischer and Ron Boswell judged One Nation as extreme - a party of the political fringes, to be defeated at the ballot box, not preferenced.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer showed enormous integrity and political leadership as the Nationals leader who persuaded country voters to accept, if not support, the National Firearms Agreement in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. Now McCormack has aligned the Nationals with a party seemingly prepared to gut Australia's gun law reforms for America's NRA.
Former Nationals Senator Ron Boswell said "In the fight of my life, against Pauline Hanson, I risked everything to stand up against her aggressive, narrow view of Australia. Defeating Pauline Hanson and One Nation in 2001 has been my greatest political achievement."
He fought too, the far-right-wing, anti-Semitic League of Rights, identifying it as an extremist organisation with a malign influence on politics and the community. "You have to stand for something," said Boswell.
Most people won't remember, but the Greens and One Nation are also fatefully linked in another way: former Greens Leader Bob Brown gave his inaugural speech at the same time as Pauline Hanson infamously gave hers way back in 1996 and the two leaders exemplify the stark difference between the parties they co-founded.
Fast forward to 2019, now-Senator Pauline Hanson is giving tearful interviews on A Current Affair after having to distance her party from the lewd remarks of Steve Dickson (who really ought to have stood down after his part in telling the NRA they could have the Australian government "by the balls" for a cool $20 million), while the now retired Bob Brown is leading the Stop Adani convoy into Canberra, in time for the Stop Adani Rally at Parliament House on Sunday.
Some of the most extreme things Pauline Hanson is best known for are comments about entitlements for Aboriginal people and warning that Australia was in danger of being "swamped by Asians" - offensive enough to get her disendorsed by the Liberal Party at the time. She later made the same comments about Muslims, however, this time into a political debate where the soil seems much more fertile. She claims that Islam is not a religion and mockingly wore a burqa into Parliament. She introduced a white supremacist phrase, used by far-right groups including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis to stoke racial division, as a motion in the Senate.
In contrast, the Greens policies that have most attracted the "extreme" label are perhaps legalising cannabis, voluntary euthanasia laws, ending offshore detention, and phasing out coal, as well as no new oil or gas mining, as part of their plan to tackle climate change. While people may vehemently disagree with these policies, the Greens, unlike One Nation, have never engaged in hate speech and never tried to auction off our democracy to the highest bidder.
That's why equating the Greens with One Nation is not only disingenuous, it's dangerous.
It's this false equivalence that is lowering the bar of our public discourse, that's helping ideas from the extreme far right move from the fringes to centre of mainstream politics and it is this kind of moral emptiness that extinguishes voters' trust that politicians are acting in anything other than their own self-interest.
In a democracy, voters are free to elect One Nation to Parliament, as they have several times in the past, but that does not mean the political mainstream is required to embrace One Nation's policies, values or actions.
The far right has been very successful at getting its ideas into the political mainstream over the last few years and One Nation has been its primary vehicle in the Parliament.
This debate is important now because in many states the sixth and last seat for the Senate may be a choice between the Greens and One Nation or Clive Palmer's United Australia Party.
This is why your Senate vote is so incredibly important. But the way we vote in the Senate has changed and Australia Institute research shows there's mass confusion about the new rules.
Almost half of voters, after reading the instructions printed on the Senate ballot, are mistaken on how the Senate voting rules work, which could have a big impact in a tight election contest.
Under the new voting system, on your Senate ballot paper you are asked to either vote "above the line" by expressing a preference for AT LEAST six political parties or vote "below the line" by expressing a preference for AT LEAST 12 individual candidates.
These are your top six choices. When you leave boxes blank, you are saying you prefer those choices equally.
Unfortunately, this seems poorly understood. The Australia Institute's polling shows that while nearly all respondents (90 per cent) understood preferential voting means you vote first who you most want elected, almost one in two voters (47 per cent) mistook voting six above the line as voting for "the party you dislike more than any other party on the ballot paper" (i.e. "putting last").
The poll even presented respondents with the instructions on the ballot paper, and still voters were more likely to get it wrong than get it right.
And one in three said your ballot paper is disqualified if it goes beyond 6 above the line. In fact, you can keep numbering beyond 6 above the line, and you should, if you want to put someone last.
These results raise concerns voters may express their intentions in ways that backfire.
The Australian Electoral Commission has acknowledged there is a "learning curve" for voters when it comes to the new system. But where is the "teaching" to accelerate this learning process? Just this week the AEC Commissioner was asked about this directly on ABC radio, but chose not to clear it up, instead giving the incorrect instruction to vote "1 to 6" without the crucial "AT LEAST".
There is clearly a need for a bigger AEC education campaign to help enfranchise voters.
Many people have equally strong opinions about who they're putting first on their Senate ballot paper as they do who they are putting last - I confess that I find the latter to be the most satisfying part of Senate voting.
So don't stop at the six best parties or 12 best candidates. Enjoy numbering all the boxes so you can put a party or candidate last.
Ebony Bennett is deputy director of The Australia Institute @ebony_bennett.