The Coalition has won a bare majority government. Sure, if Mr. Abbott had delivered this result the ABC, Fairfax, and over half the opinion writers on The Australian would be baying for blood, and for his head. Heck, Niki Savva would be good for at least another year or two of vitriolic abuse. And the Communications Minister (remember, we’re assuming Abbott had stayed in office and then delivered this exact same result) would be out there ‘being the team player he always has been’ – no white-anting or leaking or photos of himself taking the train at just the right moment.
But given the skin they have invested in Mr. Turnbull, much of the media and political classes are doing what they can to paint this election result as a tolerable one and to prop up our ‘He Who Must Be Obeyed on Superannuation’ Prime Minister. Yes, sure, they are offering him some advice on how to do better. But they really, really want Malcolm to stay in the job, at least till Labor can win a thumping big victory in the future.
So in that spirit of offering the Liberals advice for the future, and remembering Team Turnbull’s vapid and vacuous message of ‘continuity and change’ (a message the comedy writers for a leading US sitcom got to first), I would like to try my hand at this. I’m going to suggest a few policies that I think would help the Liberals, and would also fit within the banner of ‘continuity and change’.
Let’s start with superannuation. As soon as Parliament is recalled bring in a new bill that significantly increases the taxes on the pensions of those with the gold-plated defined benefit schemes that are indexed to inflation and which deliver those generous six figure a year sums. We’re talking ex-politicians, civil servants, judges. Tax them in the name of fairness. If they squeal about retrospectivity, tell them that you won’t be affecting the monies already paid to them in the past. No, no, no. You’re only going to be reducing what they get in the future. That’s what all tax legislation does, tell them. Stop being cry-babies. And if they still insist it would be a retrospective change to their entitlements, tell them that fewer than 4% of the population will be affected. Heck, it’ll probably be a lot fewer than that who are privileged enough to be sitting on those platinum arrangements. So tell them the country needs this money. It’s to help with the budget, to reduce the deficit you understand, my dear fellows. For Queen and country, or as Mr. Turnbull’s in charge for his republic.
Better yet, I’m betting you’d get this bill through the Senate. The Upper House will have loads of new politicians not on quite such generous arrangements. They could be game to pass this sort of Bill. And let’s be honest, this will be very popular with the public. Even the Greens might pass it. I figure you might get it through. After all, you’d be legislating in the name of “fairness”, which seems to be the new deity before which the Liberal Party genuflects.
That’s my first suggestion in keeping with ‘continuity and change’. You would still be attacking pensions but at least you’d be attacking people who aren’t virtually all core Liberal Party supporters, volunteers and donors.
What else? Maybe some more Senate voting reforms might be an idea? That last one worked out so well! Sure, not everyone on the right side of politics would have pushed on with a proposal where the only other people you can find to support it in the upper house are in the Greens. I personally do not subscribe to the rule that the Coalition should never, ever, under any circumstances side with the Greens on anything. But I wouldn’t do it more often than we see a transit of Venus, or better yet, until that monkey you sat in front of the typewriter had finished typing out the complete works of Shakespeare.
This time try for a Senate voting reform that doesn’t deliver an upper house of lefties and Hansonites. I think we’re at the stage where the Senate is a serious threat to this country’s long term prospects. It was designed in the United States (largely by James Madison) and in my view it really only works in the context of a non-proportional voting system that clears out almost all the minor and crazy parties, as in the US. Look around the rest of the Anglosphere, those places that have actually done something about budget problems, and you see either no upper house at all (NZ) or upper houses that are wholly appointed (Canada and the UK), and so without any democratic legitimacy, and which therefore block next to nothing.
Only in Australia do you hear serious media people and politicians talk about the need for the leader of the party that has just won the election with a seeming mandate for reform having to negotiate with a guy that likes cars, or with Clive or Jacquie, or now Mr X and Pauline. This is crazy! The Senate has far fewer democratic credentials than the House. Your vote counts for about fifteen times more in Tasmania than NSW and nearly five times more in South Australia. The Senate was copied from the American model and, in my view, only really works where voters can all identify a nationwide party that is doing the blocking and obstructing and then decide if that obstreperousness is warranted. You need a voting system that delivers that, like the one we had in this country before 1949. Proportional voting and the Senate go together like Greece and the euro, like democratic deficiencies and the EU.
So this is a serious proposal, unlike the one above. Put up a bill to change the voting system in the Senate. It will lose. But that would be a double dissolution worth having. Otherwise, it may be that down the road we’re going to need a constitutional referendum to abolish the Senate. As things stand, with the people who all have vetoes, there is no hope for meaningful reform. Still, you can’t get past the fact that Mr. Turnbull was right in saying, at least as far as the Senbate crazie are concerned, it really is the best time to be alive in this country. There are more crazies (that’s the change) but they still control the agenda (continuity).
How about one last suggestion to the Liberal Party. Tell Mark Textor to continue to shut up until the leadership changes. Fingers crossed he’ll be back talking in no time.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline