I said the other week that I agreed with Paul Keating’s famous denunciation of the Senate as “unrepresentative swill”. It’s now looking highly likely that, due to complicated preference deals which few voters understood or were even aware of, six or possibly seven of the new Senate seats will be filled from outside the major parties. This would be great, if it represented the will of the people. But in several cases, it demonstrably does not. With six Senate seats on offer in each state, the quota is about 14.3%, or one-seventh, of the total formal vote.
Yet, for example, in Victoria, Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiasts’ Party is set to be elected to the Senate with just 0.5% of the primary vote, or about 3½% of a quota. In Western Australia, Wayne Dropulich from the Australian Sports Party has been elected with just 0.22% of the vote, or 1½% of a quota! In South Australia, Family First’s Bob Day gained 3.3% of the vote, or 23% of a quota—somewhat better—while in Queensland, Clive Palmer’s candidate, rugby league legend Glenn Lazarus, has a more reasonable claim to legitimacy with 10.3% of the vote, or about 72% of a quota.
And then there’s New South Wales, where David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Australia’s only Libertarian political party (I know that’s confusing for British readers), has won a seat. Being the beneficiary of a “perfect storm” of factors—drawing column “A” on the vast ballot paper, which was printed in just 6-point font, and having a party name that looked a lot like the Liberal Party, resulted in the LDP in NSW receiving an astonishing 8.91% of the primary vote, or 62% of a quota. In doing so, it out-polled the Australian Greens in NSW (7.67% at latest count). A labyrinth of preference deals and a fortuitous order of elimination of other minor and “micro” candidates helped the LDP over the line.
Leyonhjelm (pronounced lion-helm), a former veterinarian and agribusiness owner, in interviews over the past few days, has summarized how he will vote on all major issues. While he broadly respects the mandate of the incoming government, he will be guided, he says, by two simple Libertarian principles:
- he will never vote for an increase in taxes, and
- he will never vote for a diminution of Liberty.
This means, for example, that he will support the Abbott government’s repeal of the Carbon and Mining Super-Profits taxes. But he will vote against Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme which, he says plainly, is a scheme designed to take money from people who do not have newborn babies, and give it to people who do.
He explained the LDP’s policies in this radio interview last night with Andrew Bolt and Steve Price. Leyonhjelm, while generally appealing to both men, clearly made them palpably nervous. It was also obvious that neither Bolt nor Price had ever heard of the LDP before the election, though Price has been to their website recently and has looked at their policy platform. For Bolt, who often professes Libertarian beliefs on his blog, television and radio appearances, it was a clearly confronting experience for him to be faced with a real, live Libertarian politician, who calmly explained to them the rationale for gun law liberalization (the issue that prompted Leyonhjelm to quit the Liberal Party in 1996), marijuana legalization and voluntary euthanasia (which the LDP refer to as assisted suicide). Though it’s a radio interview and audio-only, you can almost visualize Bolt and Price scurrying back into their safe, comfortable and familiar conservative shells, exposing the statist streak within.
As I see it, Leyonhjelm’s influence in the Senate may be to hold the government to account in a way that the Opposition cannot: that is, to ensure they remain a truly liberal party. Any temptation by the government to gain votes by populist spending, or to slide into social engineering, nanny-statism or other tax-and-spend tendencies, he will fiercely oppose. He will give encouragement and confidence to the more Libertarian-minded government MHRs and Senators, to pursue policies that reduce the tax burden and increase the Liberty of the individual—much like Ron Paul in the United States Congress. He will be, in fact, the Libertarian conscience of the Senate—something rare in parliaments in a Western world almost completely converted to social democracy.
The Senate outcome, but for chance, could have been far worse than it has turned out. Labor and the Greens now have only a total of 35 Senate seats, four short of having power of veto over legislation. This figure is sure to go down at the next half-Senate election in 2016. I speculated the other week that two extremists—unreconstructed racist Pauline Hanson and Wikileaks fugitive Julian Assange—could easily have wound up with control of the balance of power in the Senate, and with it, the nation. Had the minor parties been eliminated in a slightly different order, this may well have come to pass. After all, they both polled a higher primary vote than several of the elected Senators.
Of those minor party Senators, Muir and Dropulich at least sound like reasonable fellows in the interviews they have given; they are unlikely to become rabid obstructionists. A little horse trading on their single issues should see them compliant in supporting government legislation. Glenn Lazarus, long a public figure in Australia and used to media attention, is a reasonable fellow; but the extent to which he will be beholden to his boss, the very unreasonable (and at times downright unhinged) Clive Palmer, is unclear. Family First’s Bob Day, a successful businessman, former Liberal Party candidate and past Secretary of the H.R. Nicholls Society, has a detailed policy platform which you can read here; he is likely to vote with the government on most issues. And Nick Xenophon, having sat in the Senate now for six years, is a known quantity, has a similarly detailed platform, and with an incredible 25% of the primary vote, can hardly be called a minor figure any more; he is far and away his state’s most popular politician.
But it’s all academic now; we have the Senate we elected, democratically and according to our own laws. I suspect a couple of the single-issue, neophyte Senators will end up leaning heavily on Leyonhjelm and Day, political veterans, for guidance on issues of substance. And that bodes well for the cause of Liberty. In all likelihood, he won’t be re-elected in six years’ time—the “perfect storm” of factors is extremely unlikely to be repeated. Furthermore, there may well have been electoral reform in the meantime and, as he will by then be 67 years old, he probably won’t want to go round again anyway. But he does have six years of media attention ahead of him, which gives him the opportunity to raise the public profile of Libertarianism generally and the LDP specifically. So who knows?
It may well end up being our best Senate ever.