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Recent Senate reforms will make first preferences much more important at this year’s election. AAP/Alan Porritt

Ideas for Australia: Voters have a good choice of politicians, but need to overcome their mistrust of them

The Conversation has asked 20 academics to examine the big ideas facing Australia for the 2016 federal election and beyond. The 20-piece series will examine, among others, the state of democracy, health, education, environment, equality, freedom of speech, federation and economic reform.

Is the Australian parliamentary gene pool shrinking? Has recruitment from a “political class” meant that politicians from across the chamber are more like each other than the people they represent? Is this why “outsiders” like Pauline Hanson who seem more like “ordinary people” sometimes do well?

A representative bunch?

People who entered parliament from politics-related jobs form the largest single occupational group in the 43rd parliament elected in 2010. “Politics-related” is quite a broad category. It covers members of state or territory legislatures or local government, union officials, lobbyists, political consultants and ministerial or electorate staff.

From July 2011, when the new senators took their seats, 92 MPs came from the “political class” compared to 57 from business and 30 from the legal profession. They were well educated, holding 212 bachelor degrees, 49 masters degrees and eight doctorates, among other post-secondary qualifications.

While the parliament has become better educated and more middle class, the House of Representatives remains remarkably male-dominated. Women made up only 27% of members after the 2013 election. Australia has slid to 54th place on the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s league table of women’s parliamentary representation, with 60 countries ranked above it.

It is a different story in the Senate. Women are 60% of Labor senators and 50% of Green senators, although only 22% of Liberal senators. The major party senators include two Indigenous women for the first time, Nova Peris and Joanna Lindgren, great-niece of Sir Neville Bonner, the first Indigenous member of federal parliament.

The respect deficit

Many hoped that the presence of women, and of new “post-materialist” parties like the Australian Democrats, would have a civilising effect on parliament, providing an alternative to the confrontational style of majoritarian political systems. However, as then Australian Democrats leader Janine Haines said, it’s hard to run onto the pitch playing soccer when everybody else is playing rugby league.

In general, the parliament does poorly in terms of the quality of deliberation. This is measured by how much respect politicians show for other speakers and perspectives, and how prepared they are to revise positions after considering argument and evidence. High-quality deliberation of this kind seems to run counter to the “logic of appropriateness” of Westminster parliaments.

Political parties hold the key to legislative recruitment. Historically, Australian voters had very high levels of identification with the major parties. This shifted somewhat in the 1980s and further in 2013, when only around 73% of voters said they identified with one of the major parties.

Few young people join political parties. Even members of the Australian Greens, who carefully avoid the word “party”, have an average age of 54.

As in many Western democracies, public distrust in both parties and politicians has grown. It is why senator Jacqui Lambie is trying to distance herself from political parties with the slogan:

I’m an average Australian just like you.

Senator Ricky Muir describes himself as “just your ordinary everyday Australian”.

In 2010, less than one-third of Australians expressed much confidence in political parties.

There are many possible reasons for this distrust, even apart from scandals over political donations or misuse of parliamentary allowances.

There is the prevalence of negative election campaigning and the cynicism engendered by the work of spin doctors. Television news contributes to this with clips of Question Time, where the performances do little to inspire confidence.

Will senate reform improve democracy?

Australian parliamentarians are highly educated and capable of considered deliberation, but are more likely to be rewarded for factional loyalty and party discipline.

Reasoned debate is more likely to take place in, for example, the Senate committee system, but this too has become more adversarial and dissenting reports have become the norm. Although voters continue on the whole to identify with the major parties, they have little respect for the performances they see in parliament.

What difference will the Senate electoral reform make? The reform will mean that parties can no longer register group voting tickets. Voters will be asked instead to distribute their own preferences (six above the line for parties or 12 below the line for candidates).

Most of the impetus for the reform stems from the 2013 election, when a large number of micro-parties with vote-attracting names were registered, seemingly for the sole purpose of “preference harvesting”. This was a successful strategy in so far as candidates such as Muir were elected, despite only 3.5% of the votes that elected him coming from his Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party.

However, while the election of microparty candidates provided impetus for reform, the major parties have a long history of registering tickets that are unknown to their voters and contrary to their preferences. A famous example occurred in 1984, when the Labor Party ticket favoured the Liberal and National parties over the Nuclear Disarmament Party in NSW, causing the defeat of Peter Garrett despite his healthy primary vote. The current Family First senator from South Australia, Bob Day, was elected on Green preferences.

The Senate voting reform will make first preferences much more important, but will not guarantee the defeat of current crossbench members. Some have acquired a high profile in the community as “accidental politicians”, coming from outside the political class and speaking up on issues of wide concern.

One reform that may make a difference is the inclusion of party logos on ballot papers for the first time. This aims to prevent the confusion that resulted in Liberal voters voting for the Liberal Democratic Party in NSW and electing David Leyonhjelm to the Senate.

In the 2016 federal election, voters will have plenty of candidates and parties to choose from. The requirements for party registration or candidate nomination have not been tightened. New parties have been registered such as the Australian Cyclists Party and the Renewable Energy Party, as well as the parties that the crossbench senators have registered.

It is up to voters to make the most of the opportunity they now have to distribute their own preferences between parties or candidates. They just need to overcome their distrust of parties and politicians for long enough to do it.

You can read other articles in the series here.

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