Climate Policy and Democracy in 2013-14

Tim Dunlop argues that Labor, having lost the election, should yield to Tony Abbott’s right “to govern as he sees fit”, and help him repeal the carbon tax. According to Dunlop, the “norms of democratic governance” are at stake. I find his reasoning a bit simplistic, but I’ll get back to this.

A range of new Senators will take their seats in July 2014. Beyond that point, Abbott will need to negotiate for the support of the Palmer United Party plus any three out of Democratic Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Family First, Nick Xenophon and the Motoring Enthusiasts. (The Coalition will have 33 Senators of its own, and needs 39 out of 76.)

It’s still possible (given Scott Ludlam’s appeal) that a Senate recount in WA may eventually go ahead, despite the AEC’s initial rejection, and deliver an alternate outcome: Palmer United losing one senate seat to the Sports Party1. Then Abbott’s options are slightly more complicated: he would need any six out of the DLP, LDP, FF, Xenophon, Motoring, Sports, and two PUP senators.

On the carbon tax, the various positions are as follows:

The odds seem to be in favour of Abbott getting the numbers, but there are scenarios in which he doesn’t. Any two of Muir, Dropulich and Lambie2 could combine with Xenophon, the Greens and Labor to block Abbott’s plans, and the likelihood of that depends on a lot of things we just don’t know at the moment.

You might think that single-issue parties like the Motoring Enthusiasts and the Sports Party are unlikely to put up a fight when it comes to non-core issues (things other than Motoring and Sports), particularly when the issue in question is the Prime Minister’s single most emphatic election promise. But then Xenophon himself previously ran on a “No Pokies” ticket, and isn’t shying away from the climate change policy debate. And Family First can’t reasonably claim that their policy is motivated by anything to do with families. The outcome probably depends more on the character of the new senators themselves than their respective party platforms.

But the outcome also depends on Abbott’s ability to negotiate with all these people simultaneously, including Clive Palmer. Even with enough Senators who want to repeal the carbon tax, how many of them will want to secure special deals beforehand? How much will they try to milk Abbott, before letting him have his victory? Clive Palmer in particular could…well, do anything. The carbon tax might remain in place by virtue of endless bickering over the precise terms of its repeal. Maybe. Who knows?

Well, the Labor Party itself could put an end to this speculation, if it wanted. And it could happen now, rather than in mid-2014. Where the ALP votes with the Coalition, all other parties and independents are irrelevant. This is what Tim Dunlop wants.

I’m sure some will disagree and say that the environment trumps everything, that addressing climate change is the most compelling issue we face, and that you can’t practice politics on a dead planet. Fair enough.

But I would say in response that politics is the only way we have of implementing planet-saving policies in the first-place. Every move we make that undermines the legitimacy of the process itself damages the main tool we have to bring about the change we want.

Dunlop’s argument would have some legitimacy if the fate of democracy really was in the balance, but he hasn’t made that case.

After all, why is it that the Labor Party has the power to keep the carbon tax in place in the first place (at least temporarily)? This power, even in opposition, is a product of Australia’s representative democracy, not an anathema to it. Our democratic system was designed this way for a reason. What is the point of the upper house if not to be a check on the lower house? The Senate is elected too, remember, and Abbott has not won the Senate. Not yet, anyway.

Dunlop appears to fear the idea of political deadlock, as exemplified in the US:

There, a rump of the Republican Party, in the form of its so-called Tea Party members, is currently destroying not just Congress itself but the nation’s faith in its ability to effectively govern itself.

The ramifications of that are huge, and we shouldn’t let it happen here.

But it can’t happen here. Australia has constitutional mechanisms to resolve such deadlocks if and when they occur. If the Senate repeatedly rejects government legislation, the government can call a double dissolution election. Abbott has been talking up this possibility for a long time. Also, should it ever be needed again, the Governor General has the power to sack the government, triggering an election. One way or another, these mechanisms will shift the balance of power by re-consulting the voters.

The US has an additional challenge in the form of low voter turnout, if voters become disillusioned. Compulsory voting in Australia largely solves this.

Dunlop also makes this point:

The system asks that both winners and losers of the democratic competition accept some level of humility. Compromise is built into the fabric of democratic governance and no-one gets all of what they want.

The problem with abstract discussions on compromise is that, while compromise is almost universally agreed to be essential, there simply aren’t any rules about when and how it happens, and who must compromise more. There can’t be any rules, because compromise is an inherently rule-breaking idea. The appropriate degree of compromise depends entirely on the situation at hand, not on any general principles. It’s circular reasoning to employ “compromise” as a reason for why one side should give in.

But say, even, that we are aiming for some arbitrary level of humility and compromise from both sides. If Labor voted to repeal the carbon tax, what “humility” and “compromise” has the Coalition had to endure?

Dunlop tries to eke out a somewhat nuanced position. He does acknowledge up-front that:

A party that claims “we won the election therefore we get to do whatever we want” is not citing any sort of constitutional truism: it is strategically deploying a rhetorical trope in order to get its own way.

But I have difficulty separating this “rhetorical trope” from Dunlop’s own argument. He has not immunised himself from it merely by explaining it. His only real premise is indeed that the Coalition won, and he does speak of the “rights”3 of said winner to do essentially whatever they like. This is a simplistic interpretation of representative democracy, and it is effectively repudiated by the constitution.

Although its power may not last, Labor has every reason to block the repeal of the carbon tax. Its ability to do this is not some murky result of arbitrary, incomprehensible parliamentary rules, but of basic democratic process. Tony Abbott will have the authority to repeal the carbon tax when he has the numbers to do it, not before.

  1. And also Labor (Louise Pratt) losing one seat to the Greens (Scott Ludlam), but that won’t change things as far as the carbon tax is concerned. []
  2. And/or others, of course, but those three seem the most likely. []
  3. I would have thought words obligations and privileges might be a better choice than rights. By being elected, you gain obligations, and certain privileges needed to carry them out. []

Fun with Senate GVT Data

As I learnt from the Poll Bludger, the Senate group voting tickets were released a few days ago. (The data is available in CSV form from the AEC: NSW, Vic, Qld, WA, SA, Tas, ACT, NT.)

Group voting tickets (if you don’t know) are the way most voters choose to vote on the senate ballot paper. They are the above-the-line option, where you choose one party only, and (perhaps unbeknownst to many) cede your choice of 2nd, 3rd, etc. preferences to that party. A GVT is a list of preferences for senate candidates, decided in advance by each party. You can either select a GVT (whose details are not shown to you on the ballot paper, except for the first preference), or number all the candidates.

I thought it would be interesting to see how the pantheon of parties ranks itself. Which parties are closer to the front of the other parties’ preferences? Which parties are despised by all? Where do the major and high-profile minor parties come?

Here they all are. I’ve included every political party and independent contesting senate seats in every state and territory. The bars on the graph1 represent the median position of a party among all parties’ preferences. Smaller bars are preferable, indicating that a party is closer to the front of overall parties’ preferences. I stole the colour coding from the ABC.

(Note: there’s nothing predictive about this graph. It’s just a representation of what the different parties think of each other.)


Parties contesting senate seats differ state-to-state. Independents and many minor parties run in one state only. Other parties have subtly different registered names in different states. I’ve tried to remove these inconsistencies in the graph. However, the Liberals and Nationals further confuse things by being the same party in Queensland but not anywhere else.

Anyway, here are some observations:

  • Australian First Nations occupies the most favourable position by a wide margin, though they are an NT-only party.
  • The Australian Sports Party is next, perhaps in keeping with our vaunted national identity, and/or perhaps because it’s a feel-good concept that compares starkly with the entrenched ideology of other parties.
  • Most established, high-profile parties lie at the bottom of the list, towards the end of overall parties’ preferences. The more we see of our political parties, the more faults we find. Moreover, the established, high-profile parties are probably the ones considered the largest barrier to the chances of all other parties.
  • The Greens are fourth-last, and are perhaps in the unenviable position of being seen as an “establishment” party even while struggling to maintain a presence in the House of Representatives.
  • Family First, meanwhile, seems to have attracted disproportionate magnanimity. Did Steve Fielding really capture our hearts after all?
  • The wisdom of our political tacticians has placed Bob Katter slightly ahead of Clive Palmer2. It will be interesting to see if either makes a dent in the status quo.

It’s curious that the major parties should be so far down the list, considering the undisguised craziness of others like One Nation, Rise Up Australia, the DLP, etc. Is that really the path we want to go down? Given the choice between (a) a senator from your least favourite major party, and (b) a senator from Rise Up Australia, who do you think would do the least damage?

I had also intended to use the GVT data to construct a network of parties, showing allies and enemies (where an alliance is implied by one preferencing the other before all major parties). The result is currently too cluttered to be readable, though.

  1. Actually, a bar graph doesn’t quite feel quite right, because the data represent positions rather than quantities, but it was the easiest choice. []
  2. The ABC has decided that these two are now worthy of colour coding. Palmer takes yellow from the Democrats, and Katter takes brown from One Nation. If Katter and Palmer fail, who will be next? []