Senate Reform

In the wake of the recent federal election, and the follow up by-election in Western Australia, the need for reform to the Australian Senate is widely recognised — specifically to the voting process, but also the structure of the senate itself. However prior to getting into the specifics of those reforms, it is imperative that the purpose and contribution of the Senate is considered.

The Senate is widely called the house of review. This is quite aimless in and of itself; for review to have value, it must take place on a known and desired basis. The basis on which this takes place, in practice, is completely determined by the differences between the Senate and the House of Representatives. It is more correct to say that a well structured Senate functions to limit the worst excesses of democracy through the protection of the abiding principles of governance from the follies of the day.

Only in to the extent that it differs from the House of Representatives, does the Senate provide value.

The corollary to this of course is that the Senate demonstrates its value when it modifies or rejects legislation put forward by the House of Representatives. For this restraint to be considered worthwhile in the long run, the value of those changes must be greater than the frustration they cause. They must be clearly in accordance with the fulfilment of the principles of difference that exist between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Furthermore, the basic principle of the lower house must be known and fulfilled by that house.

The House of Representatives serves to completely fulfil the concept of ‘one person subject to taxation, one vote’.

Once this is understood, it becomes clear that this principle is near irrelevant to the Upper House. Thus it is not a valid complaint, in respect of the Senate, to point out that Tasmania far fewer people than New South Wales, but the same number of Senators. On the other hand, it is quite valid to point out and redress mal-apportionment on the basis of population in the Lower House. The Senate does not need to address that principle, except where not doing so reduces its capacity to protect the principles it exists to express.

So what principles does the Senate encapsulate; what additional principles should it capture?

Currently the Australian Senate maintains differences of greater and lesser effect based upon length of term, proportional representation, and geographic distribution. The principles behind these differences may be summarised:

Federal Law should not change on the whim of the day but with slow deliberation in concert with change in societal values, giving due consideration to what has held true in the past.

Federal Law should be reviewed in the presence of representatives of different schools of thought present in reasonable proportion throughout the states.

Federal Parliament should not easily dictate to a state standards that are not in keeping with its regional mores simply because more other, more populated states have different mores.

I would also submit the following for consideration, that is not captured at all in the current system:

The expenditure of Federal Parliament should be subject to review and approval by representatives of those whose primary income is not provided by the government.

Each of these issues is more or less perfectly (in most cases, less) captured in the current system. If we hold that these principles should be maintained, then every effort should be made to see that they are well captured, and not devolved in practice by the perditious political machinations of representative democracy. In detail:

The longer term nature of Senate seats, both in the term of office and the increased likelihood of seat retention works well in capturing the principle outlined above. The only change I suggest in terms of timing is that Senate elections take place on a rolling basis — one state every six months, rather than the three year half cycle we currently have.

Quite clearly, proportional representation has become unwieldy due to the group voting ticket abomination. The simplest method of resolving this is to adopt a proven proportional system, such as the Hare-Clarke system we have in Tasmania. Adopted as is, with a minimum voting depth of 10 and a maximum of 5 candidates per party, the proliferation of micro parties that is occurring solely to take advantage of the current process would be addressed at the source. Furthermore, technological solutions to increase the timeliness of the result can be adopted. The use of scanning pens in the voting booths that store each individual vote while retaining the existing full paper trail would dramatically reduce the time required for a count, while retaining the same degree of security, privacy, and the same process as currently in use. A process refined over the course of 100 years is not lightly to be discarded, despite recent hiccups.

I was involved in a discussion recently regarding the resolution of the issue of geographic distribution. The result of that discussion was a proposal to excise each of the state capitals and their contiguous urban areas from the original states, reducing the number of Senators for each state to 8 (leading to a total of 100 senators once the territories are included). The lower house would increase to a scale (200 seats) that allowed an even distribution of electors there, resolving the issues of the over representation of Tasmania in the House of Representatives.

Finally, it must be noted that the Upper House does not in any means capture the principle behind the original Upper House, the House of Lords. That is, that those who fund government must have the capacity to limit the expenditure of government —he who pays the piper calls the tune. This principle requires at the very least that suffrage for the Upper House is limited to those who do not depend upon the state for their primary source of income. This constraint is deeply divisive but necessary. It provides a driver for integrity and honour in politics; without it, democracy has a corrosive and corrupting influence upon our politicians first, and our culture second. If that pressure is not borne by the system, it is borne by the individuals within it, a proportion of whom inevitably fail.

If we are to have democracy, it must be properly restrained. What is proposed here is a Senate intended to do just that; comprised of proportionally elected individuals within the the six states, the six city-states, and the two territories. These Senators represent the long term views of the electors in those regions who are not dependant on government for their primary source of income, and review legislation proposed by the democratic House of Representatives on that basis. In doing so, the capacity for reestablishing integrity in politics, restraint in government spending and limits on government intrusion into our private lives can be found, at least for a time, until this structure too, needs reform.

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In recognition of nobility

Nobility is a concept that does not sit easily with democracy. It inherently suggests that there is an order among men; that breeding matters; that all things are not relative.  It rejects the grand misconceptions of this age; that all are created equal, that success is only a matter of effort or lack thereof, that no act has consequences.  So in this age —to allow those falsities to persist — nobility is defamed.

Nobility lost the war against barbarism.

It is not alone in being a concept that has been defiled not because of what it is, but because the losing side in a war held that concept.  Even today, our concept of ‘a noble‘ is a tainted one, and quite distinct from our concept of ‘a noble deed‘.  The contrast perhaps between the attainment of the ideal and the imperfect vessels that sought that ideal? But not only that; the residual effects of combat against those who upheld those ideals.

Democracy is by nature the glorification of the ignoble.

We forget this. In the name of democracy, we have broken up the concept of sovereignty and distributed it widely, claiming that sovereignty stems from the people. We have, in erratic fits and starts, continued to remove the barriers to the exercise of sovereignty to the point today where only children and criminals are denied sovereignty. We have no standards: we rejected nobility as a standard; we rejected capacity as a standard; we rejected leadership as a standard. Sovereignty, rather than being reserved to the greatest, has been dispersed amongst the least, with only the base caution not to commit a crime left as restraint.

To recognise nobility is to reject democracy at a foundational level.

The heart of the unthinking, shocked reaction to the introduction of an Australian knightly order is a personal rejection of the principles — and in many cases an absence of the capacity to abide those principles — recognised as necessary to be worthy of that title.  A true cultural cringe; a revulsion towards the mere acknowledgement of greatness, knowing that the achievement of that greatness is beyond their scope.  Recognising greatness means noticing its lack.

The Emperor has no clothes.

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Unease in the Working Class

It’s not as though the issue of quite different perspectives and preferences is isolated to the Liberals. A similar study on Labor shows a distinctly different set of votes for those who preference the Greens, to those who don’t.

image002Labor voters who preference the Greens highly also tend to preference the Liberal Democrats, HEMP and the Pirate Party.  Labor voters who don’t preference the Greens highly tend to preference Stop the Greens, Family First and Fishing and Lifestyle / Shooters and Fishers.

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BTL: A tale of two Liberals

Yesterday’s post looked briefly at an overview of below the line voting, with a quick look at the results for those who voted ’1′ Liberal (or rather, for any one of the Liberal candidates). Today I’m going to briefly look in a little deeper at something noted in passing then; the different sub-groups that feature within those who,regardless of their other votes, picked the Liberals as the first of those who ended up elected (Lib, Lab, Grn, Pup). This is a slightly different group than I showed in short form previously, but one which serves to show the noted split in preferencing clearly.

Within that set, I have then filtered for those who voted Family First in the early half of their vote (Pro FF), and the alternate of those who voted them in the latter half (Anti FF).

To show the difference this test makes not only to the votes for Family First, but also the differences in voting preference across the whole range, these are sorted in order from most difference against FF to most difference for FF.


Significant differences that correspond positively with support for Family First are support for ‘Stop the Greens’ and Andrew Roberts, an independent candidate. Significant differences that correspond negatively with support include the ALP, Pirate Party, HEMP, and the Sex Party.

Notably there is little differentiation on the two groups opinion of the Greens, and a small negative correlation with Rise Up Australia (another Christian Values based group, but one that is notably more extreme).

Now any theorising on the basis of why these differences exist is beyond the scope of this data; most votes don’t indicate why they voted the way they did, and for those which do… well the information isn’t transcribed into the system.

Feel free to speculate .

One final bit of information.  This chart is based on ~8500 votes; ~3500 in favour of Family First and ~5000 against, all voting Liberals as the first of their majors.  




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Below The Line

One of the features of our Federal Senate voting system in Australia is the option to vote below the line. Although there has been some substantial (and well deserved) complaint regarding flaws in the system, it actually forms a pretty good basis for selection that works well while the number of candidates remains approachable.

However, the number of candidates in the Senate, in most states, has long since become unapproachable in terms of the effort required to allocate preferences – in NSW for 110 candidates this time around, and even in Tasmania 54.

In anticipation of this issue, the system was designed with a short cut – you could nominate to vote above the line and pick one of the provided pre-arranged preference lists. Each party is able to provide one such list.

This however has lead to some problems in that these lists are not necessarily — nor commonly — ordered in the way that party members would select if they were to allocate themselves.  This leads to a lot of the fuss that has occurred with micro parties managing to ‘snowball’ a very small vote up to the point where they pick up a seat through a combination of good fortune and good analysis.

Despite the ease of voting above the line, some people choose to take the effort below the line.  In Tasmania this time around, around 10.3% chose to do so. After the election is counted, the AEC publishes the preferences selected by those who vote below the line, naturally without any identifying details. This allows a look at what order people who voted for a particular party actually did use, and thus a comparison with the party’s above the line selection.

A couple notes before looking at some of the data.  Firstly, people have different reasons for voting below the line. A significant reason for doing so is because they don’t like some aspect of the way the party has arranged their above the line list. As such, the arrangement of votes sampled from below the line should not be confused with how those who voted for that party above the line would have voted below the line. Secondly, although the data is nominally by individual, the difference between individual and party results is almost exclusively determined by the order in the party and thus the results can be simplified to party results without loss.

With that said, lets have a look at the results for the Liberal Party.

LibBTLSo what can we get out of this? Apart from the order of preference which you can muse over yourself, there are a couple of interesting features.  One is the shape of the curve; the other the deep spike in the 20 percentile line for Labor.

The shape of the curve illustrates the consistency of response; where there is a consistent response to another party, their point lies close to the diagonal.  In this case it is obvious that the only really consistent responses are for the Liberal Party and the Greens.  The other parties are either not well enough known or opinion is split upon them.  The Liberal Democrats and Palmer United also show a lesser consistency.

Labor’s lower line shows a deep spike down; this reflects the substantial portion of voters who preference Labor very early in their votes, before most of the minor parties. Its not enough to outweigh the much larger grouping who put them last or second last, (see the spike up in the 80 percentile line), but it does reveal the distinct split in votes that occurs.

In my next piece I’ll look at the division that is revealed within Liberal Party voters with a little cutting and slicing of the data.


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On the prevention of chaos

Around the world these days there are numerous regions facing declining / collapsing economies, from Europe to the Middle East, and more on the verge of such a collapse should there be another significant interruption to trade and confidence.

One of the tensions that forms in these times is rooted in powerlessness and dependency. People feel powerless to change their own situation, and feel firstly dependant and then, necessarily, betrayed by government. This leads to extreme politics, increasing social tension, and in many cases fragmentation and eventually war.

We are not immune to this in the West, not even in Australia. We may be more sheltered, but we are not invulnerable. And we know it; our national concern over the inflow of illegal immigrants is a reflection of this, as is our increased rate of savings. We are preparing for hard times whether we acknowledge that logically or not.

So as part of this preparation, what measures can be taken to see us through with the minimum of unrest and chaos? For once I’d like to look at the role of government here rather than the individual.

There are two major changes government can make to provide greater capacity for self determination , and they have to do with localisation and flexibility.

Firstly, it is critical that government does not ‘betray’ it’s people, and yet at a state or national level it is near impossible to manage because the demands become so great. Counterintuitively, the only way I see for a government to manage a collapsing economy is to early on, intentionally fragment and delegate power, to localise government to the degree that people relate to one another in community in resolving their immediate needs. It must be done early, because relationships take time to form. It must be done intentionally, because otherwise it will happen arbitrarily and without oversight. It must be sufficiently small that people have a sense of their own ability to influence outcomes, and a sense of their own responsibility in decisions that are made. If this is done, the burden of any loss can be shared and accepted rather than be transformed into blame.

Secondly, the capacity must exist to change the nature of land use quickly and repeatedly. Times of difficulty are inherently times of change, as desperate people make decisions unpalatable in easier times. One of the biggest changes is movement – locally or further afield. It is critically important to make this change as easy as possible. The loss in terms of stability and relationship are significant enough; arbitrarily adding unnecessary economic costs can mean that the required changes either happen at significant loss, happen later than they should or both. This increases the damage caused, stressing relationships and stability as people seek to avoid economic losses. It doesn’t need to be that way. In Tasmania, the biggest culprits are stamp duty – imposing an arbitrary cost on movement – and our use of freehold title, which imposes asset losses rather than reducing costs in difficult times, exacerbating the situation. Eliminating or minimising stamp duty, and resolving our land title problems either by making a transition to Flowhold title or by imposing a corrective land tax, will set us up to pass through difficult times with the least loss.

These changes are important, and it is important that they are made prior to being needed. Changing early lets people get used to the ideas implicit within them and have a degree of familiarity with those concepts before they need them in desperation.

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Bringing home the budget

So the news is in.  The Alliance has brought down a budget that is only $425M in the red this year.  Looking at the figures it is pretty easy to see where things went wrong.  They budgeted last year to end up $283M in the red; things just got worse from there.

Budgeting for a government need not be a hard thing, need not be dependant on the vagaries of treasury sucking its finger and lifting it to the wind and hoping for a lift in revenue.  There is no need to project the next year,  simply to limit spending in the year ahead to the revenue brought in in the year past.

So last years budget should have been $4594M, and guess what – actual revenue this year would have left us with a few million in the bank.   Sure, this is simplistic and ignores all the second order effects that happen when you trim back.  But all of that washes out after a couple years.

This mechanism gives teeth to the line that both major party’s feed everyone about ‘balanced budgets over the medium term’.  If you maintain this, that will occur, regardless of the actual outcomes – it’s prooffed against collapse, and tempered against surges.  The one year lag also serves to temper economic changes, but just a little.

That’s the bottom line.  The hard work, the hard choices, is above that, choosing what has to make way in order to fit in the budget.  In a state budget, there are few easy cuts; I’ll look at that tomorrow.


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