I know people are probably sick of talking about Senate voting reform. But on a personal level, last week represented a huge victory for our democracy, and for reforms that the Greens have worked towards for well over a decade. It was also one of the most cynical, difficult and exhausting weeks I’ve had.
I know politics is ugly.
But I have never spent 21 hours sitting in the chamber before, and on a purely human level it was completely vile. And no, the fact that Labor Senators behaved like thugs is not as important as all the other criticisms that could be levelled at them for their complicity in our barbaric refugee policy, or sending us to war or covertly spying on the entire population. None the less, it was repulsive.
What is Senate voting reform?
Senate voting reform abolishes the Group Voting Ticket. That means that parties can no longer do preference deals that determine where your vote ends up if it’s not needed to get your  party elected.
I was trying to explain this to Dad when he called me on Saturday and asked what the changes meant. When I explained that under the old system he could plausibly vote  for the No New Coal Party (because his daughter did such a good job of convincing him that global warming is the greatest threat to her future) and end up helping get the  Pro Coal Party (i.e. Liberal or Labor Parties) elected; he was genuinely flabbergasted.
I say this, because for all the debate that there has been this week, I don’t think it is intuitive to most people that their vote could be used to elect someone with whom they are ideologically opposed – and have made that intention clear through their choice of .
So instead of that system, Senate voting reform means that the voter has control of their vote from start to finish. You now need to number at least  to  above the line. You can number for as long as you like, but when you stop your vote will stop too.
Oddly enough, despite the Labor, Liberal and Greens all agreeing on Senate voting reform up until recently; the Labor Party now opposes the reforms. Instead – in a very rare convergence of views – the reforms were backed by the Greens, the Liberal Party and Senator Xenophon.
What should our democracy look like?
Most of the argy bargy flying around this week about Senate voting reform was not about democracy, in my view, but about political point scoring. However, over the past couple of weeks I have grown increasingly fascinated by the romanticisation of the crossbench – particularly of Senator Ricky Muir – and this notion of ‘ordinary people’ getting into Parliament.
Let’s just be clear from the onset, Senate voting reform does not lock out small parties or independents. It does mean that parties that rely on complicated preference swaps will find it much harder to get into the Senate; but if they get enough public support then they will be elected. (You can read more about the steps the Greens took to ensure small parties and independents were protected in the FAQs here.)
I was listening to Waleed Aly’s podcast The Minefield on Saturday (while doing the first bit of exercise I’ve done since the Senate sat i.e. hung out my washing energetically) and his co-host Scott Stephens brought up the concept of ‘a democratic optimism’ where ‘truth lies with the people.’
Now, Waleed and Scott were talking about conspiracy theories, but I think the concept applies to the Ricky Muir and the crossbench phenomenon. Senator Muir has voted with the government 52% of the time, yet he is held up by progressives as some sort of national treasure in the Senate. Certainly part of it is that he exceeded expectations from his media debut as a kangaroo-poo-thrower, but I think far more pervasive is the notion that Senator Muir is an ordinary guy, and by virtue of that he must be more likely to represent the view of ‘the people.’
I understand that gut instinct. I think, to be honest, probably quite a lot of folks do. You look at the ‘career politicians’ in the big parties who are working their way up from student politics to staffer roles to their elected positions and there is a part of that which is hard to stomach when it becomes such an institutionalised pathway to preselection.
However, none of that makes Senator Muir progressive, and none of that answers the question of whether or not Senate voting reform is good or bad. All it tells us, is that some Australians believe that having small parties or independents in the Senate is inherently valuable because they are more likely to represent the views of the people.
If we take this belief seriously, then that’s an argument for perhaps a jury-style Senate, or an argument for some policy decisions to be made through participatory democracy framework, or perhaps have some sort of jury-style citizen observers.
I am not opposed to reconsidering how our democracy works. I am opposed to conflating the complete overhaul of our democratic system with what the Senate voting reforms intend to achieve.
The second philosophical point (if you like) being discussed this week about our democracy was the concept of ‘wasted votes.’ This argument goes something along the lines of, Senate voting reform undermines democracy for the 3 million or so people who chose not to vote for one of the major parties. If you vote  for a micro party under the new system, and they do not get elected, your vote just stops instead of flowing onto elect someone else.
Now, to me, that sounds perfectly logical. That sounds like democracy. If you don’t have the public support then you don’t get in. However there does seem to be this opposing view that it is infact more democratic for someone else to decide where your vote ends up rather than it simply stopping.
Is it more democratic for your vote to facilitate the election of someone whose views you may not agree with, or for your vote to exhaust?
I think that’s a legitimate question where they could be legitimate disagreement. I clearly fall on the side of the latter.
However, I think the ANSWER to the question even if you fall on the side of the former is not necessarily to continue to prop up a broken Senate system, but to invest in better civic education. The fact that my Dad didn’t know that his vote would be passed on through a complex chains of preferences concerns me, but I think it’s probably typical.
Surely that is where our energy should be directed – not only at education about civic responsibility and democratic processes, but towards building deeper civic engagement. That’s a much more wishy-washy, nebulous response but that seems to be the heart of the problem – people do not preference for themselves because they either don’t know how, they don’t know why they should or they do not care.
I don’t think we solve that by keeping in place a system that is getting gamed at the voter’s expense.
So, why is Labor so angry about the reforms?
I think they are angry because they have decided we (Greens) are more of an enemy than the Liberals right now. I honestly cannot understand this week otherwise.
All week, they used pieces of long term established policy positions of ours to try to force us into corners. That’s a bit gross, but it’s also politics – and most of the time I can stomach that.
However, to do that with marriage equality was actually despicable. And to all my Labor friends who are about to say ‘but you did it too’ – no. No we did not, and we would never. Your party tried to bring the legislation on for debate, with no intention on having the numbers even within your own party to pass it (certainly it wouldn’t pass through the House of Reps and become law), in order to force Senate voting reform off the agenda. If we had said yes to debating our long held policy on Tuesday we would have had no Senate voting reform today (and no marriage equality either for that matter). And that was why Labor did it, and that is why it’s appalling.
As one of my colleagues Nadine wrote:
“I am a gay woman and my journey to becoming a Greens voter/volunteer/member/staffer originates from their unwavering, long term support for marriage equality and LGBTI issues. The Greens have been marching on these issues for decades, before it was popular. And I am so proud to be a part of that movement.
Today you might have seen this square from Labor floating around. Firstly, it is totally incorrect. Secondly, working from this building I have seen intimately how awful Labor can be when playing shitty, shitty, politics attacking the wrong side. For them to use an issue that is so close to my heart in such cheap political play, honestly hurts. And not a lot hurts me any more when it comes to this work.”
We debated the bill on Thursday and sent a letter to Senator Penny Wong pledging the unanimous support of every single one of our Senators if Labor would let it go to a vote.
They decided not to.
What should we expect of our politicians?
There’s a debate going on right now in Parliament and the public about whether the media should be able to freely film and take photos in the Senate chamber.
On the one hand, instinctively I struggle with the idea that our Parliament – the body of elected people who are serving at the discretion of the people – is not open to scrutiny by the people who elected them.
On the other hand, sitting in the chamber and watching Senator Cameron point and jeer, watching Senator Collins and Senator Gallacher make homophobic and transphobic slurs at one of our Senators, watching Senator Dastyari spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the GQ magazine Richard Di Natale appeared in, and listening to others make jokes about Monty Python, colonoscopies and filibuster about the epistemology of the word filibustering… was absolutely repulsive. 21 hours of that.
I honestly don’t know how you show people that, and then ask them to have faith in our democracy.