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Representation in a blokey cabinet and wonky senate


Australia as a jigsawIn Australia everyone's a democrat. Or at least, anyone who might have doubts about the notion that government derives its authority from the consent of the governed will almost certainly refrain from saying so when seeking public office. The fact that democracy wins universal plaudits does not, however, mean that we're all agreed on what's required to keep our politics as vigorously democratic as most Australians like to think they are.

The Abbott Government that will be sworn in this week is democratically legitimate in an obvious and fundamental sense: the Coalition won the election, and will have a comfortable majority in the new house. But if governments want to claim that they are broadly representative of the nation — and, left or right, they all do make that claim — then it is surely a problem that the cabinet of 20 includes only one woman.

And it hardly answers the point to note that there would have been two if Sophie Mirabella had held her seat of Indi, or to suggest, as Tony Abbott has, that at some unspecified future date more women will be knocking at the cabinet-room door. It is not as if there are no contenders now. A talented, long-serving Liberal parliamentarian like Marisa Payne, for example, could reasonably ask why the door isn't already open for her, and why she has been relegated to the outer ministry instead.

'Broadly representative' is, of course, a vague term. It implicitly acknowledges that even introducing quotas for under-represented groups of the population would not result in a government that resembled an Identikit image of Australia. But vague is not the same as vacuous. To say a government is or isn't broadly representative of those it governs is to recognise that representation is not only a matter of votes and head counts.

Indeed, sometimes even rigorously proper voting procedures produce outcomes that, although legitimate, cannot seriously be regarded as democratic.

The Senate that has just been elected is a case in point. When the new senators take their seats in July next year, they will include a Sports Party member from WA, who won just 0.22 per cent of the first-preference vote, and a Motoring Enthusiasts Party member from Victoria, who won just 0.52 per cent. The fact that these and candidates from other so-called micro-parties, which were unknown to most voters until they received their Senate ballot papers, were successful at the election has attracted much mirth and some praise.

But the many who derided the Senate result and the few who have defended it have often missed the point.

It matters little that the Motoring Enthusiast senator-elect, Ricky Muir, enjoys throwing kangaroo faeces at people and until very recently could be seen engaging in this pastime in a YouTube clip. It is more worrying that his Sports Party counterpart, Wayne Dropulich, has no policies other than support for junior sport. And it is cause for alarm that the Liberal Democrats, a party that has more than a tad in common with Tea Party Republicans in the US, including support for relaxing restrictions on the sale of all types of firearms, has won a Senate seat in NSW.

All of these crossbenchers will be courted by the Abbott Government as it tries to negotiate its legislation through the Senate.

The real problem with the Senate result, however, is not the dubious nature of the micro-parties' platforms, or lack of them. It is the fact that they represent tiny fractions of the electorate yet will potentially wield great legislative power. (The Liberal Democrats did win almost nine per cent of the vote in NSW but, as they admit without embarrassment, this was because many voters confused them with the Liberals, and because they were placed first on the ballot.)

Defenders of the Senate result, who typically say that more diversity in parliamentary representation is good in itself, are evading the issue. The consternation caused by the result is not an attack on the Senate itself, as some have claimed.

Nor is it a reaction against the use of proportional representation in Senate elections, which does indeed produce greater diversity of representation than the system used for electing the House of Representatives. That is why the balance of power in the Senate has often been held by parties with little or no representation in the house, such as the Greens and before them the Australian Democrats and the DLP. That has been no bad thing, for over time the lack of major-party dominance has allowed the Senate to work more effectively as a revisory chamber.

It is preposterous, however, to suggest that the latest Senate outcome is merely an intensification of this democratic process. It is the result of manipulative trading of preferences, which has allowed the micro-parties to win seats by preferencing each other before the majors, regardless of policy differences.

This manipulative deal-making could, and should, be eliminated by some simple reforms. If the present choice between above-the-line and below-the line voting were abolished and replaced by optional preferential voting, so that voters would only have to number the same number of boxes as there are senators to be elected, the deal makers would be out of a job.

And, as is the case in many other countries that use proportional representation, candidates should also have to pass a threshold before they can be elected — say, 4 per cent of the primary vote, the limit already set for public funding of campaigns.

Ensuring that representative systems are genuinely democratic requires getting both the institutional settings right (reduce the scope for secretive electoral pacts) and inculcating the right ethos (it is not acceptable for a 20-member cabinet to include only one woman). The latter is the hard part, for whether political parties and movements see democratic process merely as a means to power or as something intrinsically worthwhile depends on whether they are genuinely democratic themselves.

And that is why the drawn-out process for electing the new ALP leader, which will give rank-and-file members a vote, is perhaps the most important reform in Australian politics for many years. It is not surprising that beneficiaries of the old, factional deal-making system, such as Stephen Conroy and Julia Gillard, have condemned the reform. And it should be remembered that one of the reasons that Kevin Rudd is so widely hated in the Labor Party is that he has sought to stand outside factional alliances.

If it turns out that the new system for electing the leader is his legacy it will be no mean achievement, whatever else his detractors will say of him.

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Australia jigsaw image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, election 2013, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Labor, Coalition



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Existing comments

Ray Cassin continues with his usual pro-Labour and ant-Liberal rhetoric. But ideological vigor does not constitute an argument. So you don't like the outcome and therefore the system is wrong and somehow undemocratic? As for women in cabinet I agree that it would be good if more suitable women were appointed. But having said that, I am in no position to recommend just who from the available elected members is best qualified to do the job. And I suspect Ray Cassin wouldn't have that information available to him either. And btw how representative are Labour women MPs when most of them are Emily's Listers? Hard to get a gig in ALP press election if you are a woman and don't belong to the in group of pro-abortionists, but still not impossible. Yes there are always problems no matter the system, but not liking the outcome of an election is in itself not a compelling reason for this sort of criticism.

Fr John Fleming | 18 September 2013  

Your remarks about reforming the electoral process for the Senate are extremely sensible, Ray and have been voiced previously by other commentators. I think Tony Abbott possibly has blinkers on as far as having more women in the higher echelons of his government goes. Rather outdated blinkers at that. At least one perceptive commentator has remarked that some of the rather underwhelming Cabinet members, such as Kevin Andrews, could be replaced with candidates with more long term potential, such as Kelly O'Dwyer. This would have helped even up the ridiculous gender imbalance there. The Prime Minister seems to be at odds with perceived community standards here. It is perhaps time to move forward rather than look back. He needs to be reminded of that.

Edward F | 18 September 2013  

If having one woman in 20 in cabinet is of major concern (2, but for Sophie Mirabella's demise), why did we never read about feminist Labor's problems in this area over the last 6 years? First Rudd cabinet: women-4 in 21. Second Rudd cabinet: women-6 in 20. First Gillard cabinet: women-3 in 19 (a whisker away from 2 in 20). Second Gillard cabinet: women-4 in 20. That's from the Party of Emily's List, the Party that self-flagellates over feminist concerns.

HH | 18 September 2013  

There should be more than one female Minister. There are talented women available. The fact that there are not tells us much about how we can expect Mr Abbott to act when he has the power or discretion to act and decide free of conventions or social constraints. The decision to leave women knocking on the door speaks volumes about how Mr Abbott will exercise power.

Tony Macklin | 18 September 2013  

Same, same, but more so within our Church. Blokey Episcopate and Wonky Commisons and Advisory Councils etc.

Liz | 18 September 2013  

Tell me, what is more "blokey" than the Catholic church? We are not in a position to criticise.

Shirley McHugh | 18 September 2013  

Excellent article Ray. It's so important to articulate these issues but actually doing something about it is the vital part - time to re-visit the alert and alarmed state of being.

Felicity Costigan | 18 September 2013  

Gender has no inherent quality which provides specific expertise and thus is not in itself a qualification for any job. It does, however, provide that glass ceiling impervious to all men - the gender specific job of motherhood - a job trashed these days by the Emily's LIsters so generously represented in the Labor Party (or should that be the anti-labour party).

john frawley | 18 September 2013  

A short message; I agree 100 per cent with Father John Fleming and HH.

Ron Cini | 18 September 2013  

If Abbott wants to have only one woman in his Cabinet, what's the big deal? It's his call as Prime Minister. Nobody in the Coalition is going to challenge him over it and I don't reckon he will lose any sleep over it. But he cannot blame the Opposition if he is criticised for it.

Brett | 18 September 2013  

Yes,Rudd's biggest problem was always that he stared down the lazy chancers, spivs. and machine thugs in the ALP.

Marilyn | 18 September 2013  

Don't forget, Shirley McHugh, had it not been for the Virgin - there would not be a Church. And I am yet to meet a priest or cardinal who believes otherwise. "The world being unworthy to receive the Son of God directly from the hands of the Father, he gave his Son to Mary for the world to receive him from her." Saint Augustine. http://nibiryukov.narod.ru/nb_pinacoteca/nb_pinacoteca_painting/nb_pinacoteca_ghirlandaio_madonna_and_child_enthroned_between_angels_and_saints.jpg ( Standing L and R ) St Dionysius the Areopagite, St Thomas Aquinas.

Myra | 18 September 2013  

I had hoped that in Australia we had gotten beyond seeing a more reasonable and normal representation of women in government in terms of a somewhat distorted view of what Emily's List was with quasi-theological overtones. I do wish we were a bit more like Germany or the Scandinavian countries, which have gone beyond this sort of dated debate, into accepting the fact that men and women are people with a fair cross section of ability among both sexes. I doubt they need quotas or lists there because they honestly don't discriminate in the way we still appear to.

Edward F | 19 September 2013  

Get over it , Ray. Labor will have no credibility with the constituency it has lost until it reaffirms traditional family values - ask Steve Georganas , formerly member for Hindmarsh.

John | 20 September 2013  

why don't you get facts correct there are 4 women in the Ministry - biased reporting spoils.

bernie treston | 20 September 2013  

Father John Fleming is lucky to find himself male and a "suitable" candidate for the priesthood. "Suitability" is such an opportune word, depending on a cabal of insiders, a vaguely menacing anti- democratic assembly of qualities that belie the raw fact that women are under represented in the new cabinet. The Senate has been manipulated, but more importantly so have the voters. Let's wait and see what "suitable" policies are announced.

Gail Morgan | 20 September 2013  

Father John Fleming is lucky to find himself male and a "suitable" candidate for the priesthood. "Suitability" is such an opportune word, depending on a cabal of insiders, a vaguely menacing anti- democratic assembly of qualities that belie the raw fact that women are under represented in the new cabinet. The Senate has been manipulated, but more importantly so have the voters. Let's wait and see what "suitable" policies are announced.

Gail Morgan | 20 September 2013  

There is no wonder that there is no representation of women in Tony Abbott's cabinet. Tony Abbott needs to transform spiritually before intelligent women would want to work with him.

Jyo Aadarsh | 14 November 2013  

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