WA election rerun

It’s not decided yet, but the odds look good for a new WA senate election, to clear things up after the AEC’s recount discovered 1375 missing votes. (I gather from Antony Green that the AEC actually knows what these votes were, or at least how they were originally counted, but they can’t be used in the recount unless they are actually recounted.)

There’s a delightful arcane complexity to the logic behind the counts themselves. It’s a question of the Shooters and Fishers vs the Australian Christians. Neither of them have a hope of being elected on their numbers, but (essentially by pure luck) that two-way contest happens to decide between four other parties. The original count had the Shooters winning against the Christians by 14 votes, setting up Labor and Palmer United for a win against the Greens and the Sports Party. The recount (with 1375 votes missing) turned this around into a 12 vote relative victory for the Christians, leading to a actual Greens/Sports victory.

It all seems a bit like a series of football matches in which, due to complex points calculations, the fate of your team actually depends on a game they’re not even playing. However, in general, organisers of sporting competitions don’t suddenly decide to reverse the result of a match played eight weeks ago between two of the bottom teams, leading to the current set of finals contenders suddenly being rounded up mid-game and replaced by a bunch written off three weeks ago.

Possibly the most counter-intuitive thing is this: if just a few Labor supporters magically had foreknowledge of this complex turn of events, they might have realised that a vote for the Shooters would do more to help Labor than a vote for Labor itself. The same would be true of Palmer United and the Greens, though Greens supporters would have had to vote for the Christians, of all people.

A new election will wipe the slate clean, in a way, but Labor and the Coalition have begun to play an interesting game there. According to the Coalition’s Warren Truss — our new Deputy Prime Minister:

I think if there is a new election … it needs to happen as quickly as possible so there is as little distance between the atmosphere and the issues that decided the election in September and what will be on the table at the time that a new WA poll is held …

Meanwhile, Labor’s Tanya Plibersek (Acting Opposition Leader) says this:

It is important that the investigation [into the missing 1375 votes] is given an opportunity to run its course.

Once that investigation’s given an opportunity to run its course, we’ll have to make a decision about the way we can best be confident that the voice of every Western Australian has been heard.

Spot the difference. The Coalition wants to get it done ASAP, but Labor wants to make sure all the details are known, which of course may delay things a bit. According to Antony Green, the election rerun must occur “by the latest in early May”. The Coalition would probably be concerned — and Labor might be somewhat enthusiastic — about a shift in public opinion between now and then.

In the disputed recount, the Liberals won 3 seats, while Labor, the Greens and the Sports parties won one each. One seat out of six is a pretty poor showing for Labor, and it looks like it was only 0.14 quotas away from a second in its own right. In an election rerun, depending on the evolution of public opinion, Labor and the Greens could do quite a lot better.

If Labor/Greens come away with three seats together, they would have 36 senate seats in total. This could come at the expense of either the Sports Party or the Liberals. Either way, the bargaining power of the other Senate cross-benchers would be significantly increased, and Abbott’s options for getting things through the Senate would be diminished.

If things go particularly disastrously for the Coalition, and Labor/Greens come away with four seats in WA, and so 37 senators overall, they could combine with Nick Xenophon to block legislation such as the carbon tax repeal. (Senate votes require a majority of more than half. There are 76 senators, so the government needs 39 of them to pass legislation, and the opposition needs 38 to block it.)

The Coalition presumably knows this, and will probably spend the election campaign1 whinging about Labor’s carbon tax and the threat to civilisation and indeed to the very fabric of reality that it poses. But Labor can itself spend the campaign pointing out that Abbott isn’t big on public transport funding, GST revenue, or whatever other issues float into view at the time. And everyone else can talk about the election in a changed context — we’re not deciding which party actually governs, but rather how best to hold the government to account, which of course presupposes a particular answer.

And so the game is this: the longer that it takes to hold a new WA senate election, the more likely it is that Abbott’s “honeymoon” period will wind down in the mean time, and voters will start to assign responsibility to him and the Coalition for any failings of government. This is presumably what Truss is hinting at when he talks about the “atmosphere and the issues”. He wants to avoid an election rerun being used by voters to pass judgment on the Coalition, because, conceptually, this would still be part of the election that brought them to power in the first place.

I wonder if the WA public will see it like that. In any case, WA politics may soon — if just briefly — become very important to the rest of Australia.

  1. There has to be a campaign even for an election rerun. []

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. []

Are the Greens extreme?

Some personal context: at the time of writing, I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of a political party, nor have I campaigned for one (unless you include my writings on this blog, and if you do that you’d be equating mere opinion with political campaigning). I think and write independently of any political party’s political interests. I intend to perpetuate this state of affairs.

That said, I do care about what political parties say and do. I’ve noticed a bipartisan anti-Greens position, or brand, being forged in federal politics in the last few years. It came easily to the Coalition, of course. You may recall that the 2010 Victorian state election saw them preferencing Labor above the Greens, in a break with tradition. (Strategically, the major parties usually feature last on each other’s how-to-vote cards — a move that is tactically sound but ideologically questionable.)

But Labor has since been partly goaded, partly embarrassed into joining their arch-enemies over the party that has supported them in minority government. Perhaps it was the indignation of having to negotiate the passage of legislation with someone other than the true guardians of democracy — the NSW Right. (Our current Treasurer Chris Bowen apparently thinks that, though the Labor-Greens deal wasn’t actually a mistake, it should never happen again. Presumably he will be righteously refusing any offers to form government in the event of a future hung parliament. I can’t properly comprehend the reasoning behind this. If the Greens have the balance of power, it’s either a Labor-Greens coalition or another election, and what are voters to make of a party that refuses to form government?)

This joint position on the Greens is one whose adherents speak in grim, vacuous generalities about “extremists”, a term that seems intended to de-legitimise the Greens by association with the most radical of ideological hard-liners. People who advocate wholesale violence against ethnic minorities are called extremists. People who support terrorism, or who are terrorists themselves, are called extremists. What have the Greens done to deserve the same label? Endorsed the Whitehaven coal mine funding hoax, rudely drawing our attention again to climate change1? Advocated for the human rights of asylum seekers2? We’re all entitled to disagree, perhaps vehemently, but let’s please keep some perspective.

For all that the Greens have been condemned for being hard-liners, compromise must work both ways, and the Coalition has hardly been a picture of moderation and open-mindedness. Labor has shifted its own objectives quite a lot, but mostly in a vain, clumsy effort to outflank the Coalition, rather than in pursuit of the greater good. Ultimately, the Labor, Liberal and National parties have their own established interests, and naturally resent having others take up space at the table. It is an observable truth that the Greens do make compromises. How could they not? To fail to compromise, for a minor party, even one supporting a minority government, is to deal yourself out of the game. Do the Greens compromise enough? Many would say no, but we could haggle over that forever. There is no objectively correct amount of compromise, just a lot of heated opinion.

As inferred from the first paragraph, I am not associated with the Greens in any capacity. I emphatically disagree with them on genetic engineering and nuclear technology, where I find their policies to be naïve and simplistic. These technologies have manageable risks, and oft-ignored but very real benefits, and the more we learn through scientific endeavour, the more manageable the risks will be, and the more beneficial the applications.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the ballot paper, I tend to rank the Greens above both major parties. They don’t always come first in my estimation of the lesser of various evils, but, in effect, as long as I rank them above Labor and the Coalition, I’m supporting them. I couldn’t possibly do this without Australia’s preferential voting system, which grants us all the opportunity for fairly nuanced expression of our political beliefs.

Partly this is a kind of tactical support. I’m a former Democrats voter, and parliament needs its crossbenchers to occasionally inject some constructive criticism. We need a diversity of opinions, over and above the perpetual war of words between uncritical government MPs and unconstructive opposition MPs (which party holds government being irrelevant to this state of affairs). Independents and other minor parties can also fulfil this role, of course. Were there to be only two parties in parliament, the competence of that institution would be diminished, and we would all suffer for it.

Policies do matter as well, but minor party policies are not the same kind of animal as major party policies. A minor party really only has a wish list of things it believes in, some of which it might be able to persuade the government to partly implement at an opportune moment, if it gets lucky. One should not vote for, or against, a minor party on the expectation that everything it desires will come true.

By contrast, a major party’s policies are a largely complete statement of what it, as the current or future government, will strive to implement by itself. A major party expects to implement its agenda mostly unhindered, or not at all. It has much greater responsibility for coherent, costed policy development than minor parties. It owes this responsibility to the fact that it controls the budget — such power as minor parties can only dream of.

The Greens would not be averse to becoming a major party, by winning greater public support (however unlikely that may be), and in so doing acquire this power and responsibility for themselves. At that point, we should demand that the Greens exercise fiscal prudence. However, until they do — without the power to make budgetary decisions — such demands make little sense. Fiscal prudence, when exercised by a minor party in policy development, has no real-world consequences. It is entirely symbolic and mostly ignored.

In essence, it’s power that creates responsibility, and the need to hold political parties to account. The Greens certainly have some power, even if the extent of it has been wildly overstated.

However, to merely shout “extremism” at the Greens invites questions as to one’s own capacity and willingness to engage in informed debate. Without a point of reference, the word “extreme” is meaningless, and does nothing to inform the electorate. If you think the Greens are wrong, then by all means make your case. If you want the Greens to be held to account, articulate your criticism and challenge them and their supporters to provide their own reasoning and evidence. We might all learn something from the ensuing discussion.

But even when and if the Greens are wrong, does that in itself make them “extreme”? Consider the frequency with which the major parties make their own colossal mistakes. Consider the magnitude of the damage when the government gets it wrong, and compare that to the problem of minor party naïvety. It is not “extreme” to simply be wrong, and even if you are wrong, your contribution to the debate can still be constructive, by compelling others to justify themselves. It seems to me that we have little to fear from this.

  1. The means do not, of course, justify the ends, but I dare say that the consequences were blown a little out of proportion for political convenience. []
  2. This I’m very much in favour of. []