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Micro parties win on the big boys’ rules

Nick Xenophon will be one of the more recognisable faces sitting on the crossbench in the senate. Office of Nick Xenophon

This Senate election has been very good for the tiddlers, more professionally know as “micro parties”, so much so that there is already an emerging debate about whether the big fish should do something about an uncomfortable trend.

The “micros” see their success as a triumph of democracy, and of canny “preference harvesting”. For the Abbott government, it will pose a headache, because it will have to deal with a very odd Senate crossbench after July.

But messy as the new Senate may be, potentially it will give the Coalition more flexibility than if the Greens, with hard lines on issues such as the carbon tax, had retained their pivotal position in the upper house.

As the count presently stands, leaving aside the Greens, the other eight crossbenchers from July will be existing senators Nick Xenophon (independent) and John Madigan (DLP), and new arrivals from the Palmer United Party (two of them), the Liberal Democratic party, the Australian Sports Party, Family First, and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast party. The government would need six of the eight to pass legislation.

The Coalition had always hoped that, if it could not win control of the Senate (always an impossible ask) the balance of power would be held by perhaps three right-leaning senators. The new comers are basically right-leaning. The trouble is, there are so many of them, and they include representatives of the eccentric part of the political spectrum.

They may be easier for the Coalition than Greens but their behaviour and demands will be unpredictable. Trying to win them will be a bill-by-bill proposition, and time-consuming for ministers.

On the carbon tax repeal – key because Tony Abbott has pledged a double dissolution if he doesn’t get his way – a number of their votes would logically be with Tony Abbott.

The Liberal Democrats’ David Leyonhjelm, set for a NSW seat, told The Conversation “Our party doesn’t like taxes or excessive government spending. Our hand will be the first to go up to abolish the carbon and mining taxes”. But the party would be opposed to the Coalition’s “Direct Action” climate plan (to replace the carbon tax) because it would be “spending money on things that make no difference”.

As for Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme: “Taking money from people who don’t have children to give to those who do is not good policy”. The party doesn’t agree with the Labor PPL scheme already in place either.

Family First’s Bob Day, from South Australia, is a yes for getting rid of the carbon tax and the mining tax. “We started the campaign against the carbon tax,” Day told The Conversation. “We were the first party to challenge and question the notion of action on climate change”.

It’s a different story with Abbott’s PPL, which he sees as having “serious flaws”. Day questions why mothers who are doing the same job – looking after a baby – should be treated differently. “What happened to equal pay for equal work?” And “what right does government have to introduce selective workplace entitlements which are not available to all employees?”

Clive Palmer, who is a strong prospect to win the seat of Fairfax, has said repeal of the carbon tax should be accompanied by refunding money to companies and consumers. But he said tonight he would be willing to discuss some modification of that, with consumers who’d been fully compensated not eligible for further payments. He’s against the current form of the Abbott PPL scheme.

The Sports party’s Wayne Dropulich (who’s polling 0.2% of the WA Senate vote) told the ABC tonight that if his win is confirmed the party would then come out with its policies. Madigan, also on the ABC, said the DLP supported the repeal of the carbon tax.

The ascendancy of the “micros” has raised the question of whether the electoral system should be reformed to prevent or make it harder for parties with under one or two per cent of the vote to be elected (when a Senate quota is 14.3%).

(Madigan was elected on 2.3% of the Victorian vote, and former Victorian Family First senator Steve Fielding on 2%, so this is not a new issue.)

Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne said today: “There seems to be an industry growing of how to elect micro parties to the upper houses which I don’t think is necessarily healthy”.

It’s notable that the Greens (a minor rather than a micro party) are in favour of some reform. The Greens would benefit from a squeeze on the micros, which would reduce competition among the smaller players.

Possible reforms fall into two categories. The first would prevent voters being misled by name confusion, or the formation of token parties. Going a step beyond that would be changes that in effect actively discriminated against micro parties.

Electoral expert Malcolm Mackerras says it would be sensible to do the former but not the latter. The Liberal Democrats picked up votes because some people confused them with the Liberal party. (Tony Abbott today noted this and suggested the issue needed to be addressed – after the parliamentary committee on electoral matters had done its review of the election.) The present requirement of 500 members for registration is a very low threshold.

Other changes that have been suggested include knocking out from the count parties that fail to reach a certain proportion of votes (4% is mentioned), and altering the system, as has happened for the NSW upper house, in a way that greatly diminishes the power of preferences (in effect, making it optional preferential voting).

Mackerras believes these measures would go too far. He points out that 21 members are elected in a NSW half council election, but only six in each state at a half Senate election. “It’s okay in NSW but it would not be in the Senate because it would shut out all but a large minor party like the Greens”.

Political consultant Glenn Druery advised some 30-32 micro parties about harvesting preferences in this election. These included the Motorists, Family First and the Sports Party, although he says that each then did its own deals. He didn’t advise the Liberal Democrats or PUP.

The micro parties play within the rules that have been set by the majors, he says, and describes the major parties’ complaints as the “political equivalent of Coles and Woolworths complaining about a small business starting up in a country town”.

Madigan says none of the small parties made the rules and “they haven’t broken the rules”.

The issue has become whether the rules should be changed because too many of these parties have used them too skilfully.

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