Progressing the Senate

There’s a greater focus on the role of the Senate since the Howard Government gained control of both Houses. That’s a very good thing, and let’s hope it continues.

Most of the Senate focus has been on the importance of minor parties who will keep the majors honest. This argument often assumes that a vote for the major parties is a second-best option. But as with everything in politics, there are pros and cons to every decision, and there are some very good reasons for supporting the Labor party in the Senate, too – or more importantly, there are very good reasons for voting more progressive Labor MPs into the Caucus. So here’s why I’m going to be voting Labor in the Senate in WA, and why I think you should too.

There are two major benefits to having good, progressive Labor members in the Senate. Firstly, it adds to the depth of knowledge available to what will hopefully be the governing party, and secondly, it adds another progressive voice into the Caucus that determines the direction of the government.

The work of government requires in-depth knowledge of an incredibly wide range of subjects. No one person should be expected to be sufficiently across the entire range of bills that come before Parliament. That’s one of the main benefits of the party system, which ensures that votes aren’t decided by a collection of individuals, each of whom is expected to understand every single bill and make a considered decision about its merits – not to mention propose and consider amendments.

Senate committees perform a vital role in looking at the effects, both intended and unintended, of bills – as well as broader issues of importance to society. Of course, the minor parties are capable of performing this role as well – it isn’t limited to major parties. There are some excellent committee members, and there are some who join to put their names to reports without contributing much of value to inquiries (Stephen Fielding, I’m looking at you). If I were in Queensland I would seriously consider voting for the Democrats this election, because I agree strongly with Jason Koutsoukis’s argument that losing them will be a great and undeserved loss to the Parliament. I’m not convinced that the Greens are an adequate replacement at this stage – their populist, headline-grabbing style may be effective on particular issues, but their reluctance to engage, compromise and find ways to accommodate opposing views mean that their style would be almost as effective were they outside the Senate doing the same thing. (Given there is a chance they may get the balance of power this time, I hope I’m wrong, especially if they share the balance of power with one of the small conservative parties who are willing to negotiate compromise positions.)

It is for these reasons that it is to the WA Labor Party’s eternal shame that they dumped one of their sitting Senators down to the third and probably unwinnable spot on the ticket. First-term Senator Ruth Webber is the kind of progressive, hard-working Senator that the left needs. During her first term she played a significant role in inquiries into some of the most important issues for the left – such as mental health, RU486, transparency in pregnancy counselling advertising and stem cells. She co-sponsored the first stem cell bill with Natasha Stott-Despoja, which led to the Patterson bill that was eventually voted on by the Parliament.

Her role in organising wins in two conscience votes also highlights the benefits of having progressive people in the major parties – people who can advocate for progressive issues within the party, as well as within the Senate.

Yes, minor parties will vote on principled grounds more often than the major parties do. But their votes will mean little if neither of the major parties vote accordingly. I’ve said it before – while the downside of party solidarity is that progressives are sometimes forced to vote for a position they don’t hold, the upside is that other times they’re able to hold less progressive Labor MPs to their position. It’s unlikely that Labor will win control of the Senate, and I think that’s probably a good thing. Getting a more progressive Senate should be our main goal. However, when there is the option of electing a progressive person who can have twice the influence on government policy, and has demonstrated a desire and an ability to do so, then the choice is clear. So in WA, I’m advocating a vote for the ALP in both houses.

On voting below the line
With increased interest in the Senate election this time, there is also a lot of focus on voting below the line. It’s important to make sure that your vote is valid if you do this. Much of the confusion can happen in the middle of the page, where it’s unclear – and usually unimportant – which candidate is deserving of the 13th and 26th spot. So Anna’s top tip (apologies to arleeshar) for below-the-line voting: vote for your top choices, then your least favourites (for symbolic and enjoyment purposes) then number the rest of the boxes down each column in the physical order that they appear on the page. This is an easy method of avoiding double numbers and other mistakes.

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Posted in federal election '07, feminism, health, science
35 comments on “Progressing the Senate
  1. Sans Blog says:

    “Ruth Webber is the kind of progressive, hard-working Senator that the left needs. During her first term she played a significant role in inquiries into some of the most important issues for the left”

    Maybe that’s why Ms Webber was dropped to third place. I don’t think an ALP govt under Mr Rudd will be progressive enough for left leaners (particulalry those now voting for the Greens).

    I spend a lot to time discussing the election with anyone who will engage and the message I constantly get is that many are voting for the ALP/Greens to get rid of Howard and his gang, not for an ALP govt. ‘Governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them.’

    Personally I believe a 1 Greens 2 ALP is the best vote. That way the Greens get the electoral funding to become a major third party, the ALP gets the message about their move to the right and we still get an ALP govt (if that’s the way the final votes goes).

    If you do vote below the line for the Senate, you can protect your vote in case of an error by also voting above the line:

    “What happens if I vote both above and below the line?

    A below the line takes precedence over an above the line vote. However, an advantage of voting above and below the line is that if your below the line vote works out to be informal, then your above the line vote will stand.”

    Source: http://www.abc.net.au/elections/federal/2007/guide/howtovote.htm

  2. Anna Winter says:

    Maybe that’s why Ms Webber was dropped to third place. I don’t think an ALP govt under Mr Rudd will be progressive enough for left leaners (particulalry those now voting for the Greens).

    Um, no. It had nothing to do with her political views, and everything to do with factional power games.

    You’re entitled to your own view, but I don’t think you’ve actually addressed anything I’ve said here. The way to get a more progressive ALP is to continue to fight to keep, or add, progressive Labor MPs. Otherwise they get to win elections without progressives, in which case, they’ll owe us nothing.

  3. Sans Blog says:

    “It had nothing to do with her political views, and everything to do with factional power games.”

    Well, you didn’t say that in your post. WA politics can be as remote to Easterners as those of the New Guinea Highlands.

    “I don’t think you’ve actually addressed anything I’ve said here”

    You gave your thoughts on voting, I gave mine. The minor parties can achieve things with the balance of power just as Harradine did. The ALP will never again be progressive as the LP will never be wet again – at least for a very long time. A strong, left third party is required to restore democracya and the Greens fill the bill at the moment.

    And … perhaps you missed my quote on voting below the line which I thought would be helpful to many..

  4. Anna Winter says:

    I wasn’t trying to pick a fight with you, Sans Blog. All I was saying was that I wrote a post outlining the reasons why a vote for the ALP wasn’t always just a second-best option, and why getting more progressive Labor MPs is as important as getting a progressive Senate.

    You responded with a comment that Rudd Labor isn’t progressive enough so we shouldn’t give them a first preference, which I think ignores what I’ve written.

    Why Ruth Webber was bumped down the ticket is a side issue, which is why I didn’t write about it in my post. My point is that it will come down to a third Labor Senator or a Green, and that in this instance, a Labor Senator who can help make a very centrist Labor Government more progressive is a more useful option.

  5. mbahnisch says:

    I can see the argument, Anna, but then, how do we know if the third Labor candidate in each state is actually progressive? A lot of the time we know nothing about them. I’m assuming your argument is beyond WA.

    I wouldn’t have a clue who Mark Furner is, but he may end up as a Senator for Qld. And I doubt many South Australians have heard of Cathy Perry or Tasmanians of Catryna Bilyk. Ursula Stephens in NSW and David Feeney in Victoria certainly aren’t progressive, and I’d have great difficulty voting Labor in the Senate if I lived in Victoria because Jacinta Collins is at the top of the ticket.

    It’s not as if, either, if you go to the trouble of looking at the ALP webpage to find something out about the lesser known Senate candidates, you can tell their leanings.

  6. Anna Winter says:

    It’s unlikely that Labor will win control of the Senate, and I think that’s probably a good thing. Getting a more progressive Senate should be our main goal. However, when there is the option of electing a progressive person who can have twice the influence on government policy, and has demonstrated a desire and an ability to do so, then the choice is clear. So in WA, I’m advocating a vote for the ALP in both houses.

    I’m talking about voting for someone who has proved themselves an effective, progressive member.

  7. Another good tip if you’ll think you will struggle with the all the numbers with below the line voting it to mark a single preference above the line for your party of choice as back-up.

    If your below the line preferences turn out to be informal the AEC will treat your above the line ticket vote as the formal vote.

    http://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/scrutineers_handbook/5formality_of_votes.htm

  8. Tim Hollo says:

    I can understand your desire to vote for a particular individual, Anna, and promote that view, but, as Mark has pointed out, we should exercise caution over whether the same argument is valid in other states where the third / fourth(?) on the Labor ticket may not be an equally strong progressive voice.

    I’d also take issue with your characterisation of the Greens (of course I would). We aren’t headline grabbing over attempting to get outcomes. Not in the least. We do feel, at times, particularly in a rubber stamp Senate, that headlines can be as effective as backroom work at changin views, of course, if the backroom work is wasted.

    However, that is not to say we don’t equally engage in the detailed work of committees and legislation. I’d recommend people have a look at this post, this post and this document to get an idea of the kinds of things Greens Senators have actually achieved in the Senate before dismissing them.

  9. Liam Hogan says:

    Fantastic post Anna.

    Getting a more progressive Senate should be our main goal.

    Now it’s a shame that this is the crux of your argument, Anna, because it’s the only point on which I disagree with you. I look at the institution of Parliament as a whole, and figure that I get the best utility for my vote when the outcome best ensures the passages of the legislation I would prefer. I don’t think that’s directly related to the sum of left-wing Senators elected, though it’s highly correlated to the number of leftish members in the Caucus of a Labor Government. I’ll be honest enough to say that I don’t believe the major battles occur on the floor of the Upper House, and I’d much rather a progressive Caucus than so-called transparency in the Senate.
    I’ll definitely be putting the Democrats before the Greens when I vote, because the formers votes are effectively for sale, while the latter are going to use it as a soapbox that happens to have voting attached.
    Sans Blog:

    That way the Greens get the electoral funding to become a major third party, the ALP gets the message about their move to the right and we still get an ALP govt (if that’s the way the final votes goes).

    The Greens will become a major third party when they achieve a natural economic or ideological constituency who’ll vote Green thick or thin, which is rather independent of the four-percent funding that comes from the AEC. Maybe they’ll get one in the next decade, maybe they’ll muff it like the Democrats did. Who can tell?
    Voting Green to ‘send Labor a message’, by the way, is possibly the most futile use of your vote I can think of. It certainly sends a message: that Labor candidates have no need to appeal to left wingers. You should vote Green because you want the Greens to benefit at the expense of the Labor Party, which will be the result of your vote.

  10. Sans Blog says:

    “You should vote Green because you want the Greens to benefit at the expense of the Labor Party, which will be the result of your vote.”

    My voting Greens is not a futile vote, Liam. There is NO way the ALP, in it’s present form, would EVER get my first preference vote. Come to think of it, I’ve never voted ALP 1.

    “Voting Green to ’send Labor a message’”

    My comment is aimed at ALP voters who would like to see the ALP with some progressive policies not the Christian conservatism (from Rudd, Roxon et al), we currently getting from the party.

  11. Anna Winter says:

    Now it’s a shame that this is the crux of your argument, Anna, because it’s the only point on which I disagree with you. I look at the institution of Parliament as a whole, and figure that I get the best utility for my vote when the outcome best ensures the passages of the legislation I would prefer.

    Maybe I should have used a different set of words to say what I said, because this is pretty much what I meant. Did you think I meant a majority of left-wing people? I can see how you would think that, but it isn’t what I meant to argue.

    Tim, are you saying that we shouldn’t advocate votes for a particular candidate on the grounds that someone in another electorate might vote for an unworthy one? I don’t see how the argument that some Labor MPs aren’t progressive has anything to do with my argument that we should support those who are.

  12. Anna Winter says:

    My voting Greens is not a futile vote, Liam.

    He didn’t say that. He said, as I already have, that if you think that voting Green will do anything to force the ALP to be more left-wing then you are sadly mistaken.

  13. Ambigulous says:

    Thanks Anna,

    You argued for a vote for a particular candidate. I can’t see why persons interpreted that as a plea to “vote for the 3rd placed ALP Senate candidate in every State”.

    Yes, a voter who wants to dive down below the line has to find out about the candidates, Tim Hollo, that’s true. No point in using a ‘rule of thumb’ – not that Anna was suggesting one.

    Good to see you espousing the Pleasure Principle Anna. Some years ago I gained much joy by putting an ALP Senate candidate near last: I had seen him in action, and thought he was appalling. So sad, he wasn’t elected.

  14. Liam Hogan says:

    Did you think I meant a majority of left-wing people?

    I thought you meant a Senate which was ‘progressive’ in the sense that it would be an institutional opposition to abuses of process by the House of Representatives. As Koutsoukis quotes Senator Murray, gridlock would be the natural outcome.
    Needless to say I don’t agree with that inherently conservative model of Upper Houses, and prefer my Parliaments to be, for lack of a better term, holistically progressive. Labor Senators would lose their Caucus votes if I had my druthers, like the unrepresentative swill that they are.

    My comment is aimed at ALP voters who would like to see the ALP with some progressive policies not the Christian conservatism (from Rudd, Roxon et al), we currently getting from the party.

    Sans blog, think about it. The amazing thing about the Australian Labor Party is that it channels the energies of so many otherwise religious and rather conservative people into useful directions. The Labor Left might get beaten a lot in Caucus, but they’re hardly victims without agency.

  15. Sans Blog says:

    No, I’m voting Greens because they are party that best meets my beliefs. Whether the ALP got any message from my vote, or not, is of secondary concern.

    Apart from the obvious policies like environment and education, the litmus test of a progressive party for me is one that will not shy away from 100% equal rights for same-sex people including marriage, a position Rudd has publicly stated he opposes.

  16. Tim Hollo says:

    Anna:

    “Tim, are you saying that we shouldn’t advocate votes for a particular candidate on the grounds that someone in another electorate might vote for an unworthy one?”

    No, no, not at all. I am saying that your argument may well be relevant to WA but is expressed in terms that could easily be construed as general. I was adding my voice to Mark’s as a note of caution that 3rd or 4th ALP candidates in other jurisdications may well not fit the same bill as Ruth Webber.

  17. The Verbalator says:

    What does “progressing the senate” mean?

    Concerned,
    Princes Hill

  18. FDB says:

    ¿Donde esta mi gravatar?

  19. Liam Hogan says:

    FDB, no tendrás gravatar aquí si no enregistras con wordpress.com. El servicio de hosting es gratis pero tiene la misma funcionalidad.

  20. Liam Hogan says:

    Ahem. no tiene la misma funcionalidad.

    I don’t see how the argument that some Labor MPs aren’t progressive has anything to do with my argument that we should support those who are.

    Hear hear, AW. Many of the members of the FPLP are absolute ratbags but thanks to the good ones, should Labor win on Saturday, they’ll very soon be voting in favour of implementing the full 58 recommendations of HREOC’s Same Sex: Same Entitlements enquiry.

  21. fdavidbower says:

    ¡Aiee!

    Madre de dios, cuan simple es?

  22. fdavidbower says:

    Ees no worky. Frowny face.

  23. Liam Hogan says:

    Bueno, parece que has enregistrado con nuevo ‘username’, ya hace falta elegir un avatar de nuevo. La red wordpress.com no usa las mismas gravatars que los blogs que tienen hosting commercial.
    Buena suerte.

  24. fdavidbower says:

    Well, there’s my cover blown.

    What a shame I didn’t turn out to be someone interesting, eh?

    At least I can has avatar.

  25. Liam Hogan says:

    You can still change your nick back to ‘FDB’, you don’t have to use your username.
    Ah… look, email me if you want, and we’ll clear the thread of meta-technological rubbish. liam at stoush dot net.

  26. FDB says:

    No, I think your assistance has finally been successful. Just waiting on WP for the avatar to work properly, but I’ve every confidence.

    Muchas gracias.

  27. Anna Winter says:

    Could you two at least swear at each other while you do that? 😉

  28. FDB says:

    Y tu madre, Annita mia.

    Also, I direct your attention to the vital matter of this excellent comment by a brave defender of the English language, no doubt also handsome, sensitive and good with his hands.

  29. Anna Winter says:

    Shush, you. I was ignoring it, because I don’t know the answer!

    Move along, people 😉

  30. Youie says:

    Personally I believe a 1 Greens 2 ALP is the best vote. That way the Greens get the electoral funding to become a major third party, the ALP gets the message about their move to the right and we still get an ALP govt (if that’s the way the final votes goes).

    I’m with Sans Blog on this. I trust the ALP to do the “right thing” more than the Libs/Nats, but I don’t trust them enough to not retain many of the Coalition’s policies. Thus, at least I figure I’ll have a reasonably clear conscience after election day.

    Remember, my enemy’s enemy is my friend… And while I want a change of Govt as much as anyone, I’m saying a big *as if* when it comes to accepting that Labor’s looking for a greater number of progressive candidates. They want to win; and far too many Australians couldn’t even spell “progressive” let alone explain what the term means politically. Just because we’re partly relying on the votes of the politically ignorant/uninterested doesn’t mean we have to vote the same way they do.

  31. Ambigulous says:

    muchas gracias a todos los hombres por un pocito de espas~ol

    hasta luego

    el ambi

  32. josh lyman says:

    I’d be more inclined to support a progressive 3rd ALP candidate if I could think of a single prominent issue on which they won inside the Labor caucus in the last 10 (20?) years. The one time the Left got close to winning on a big issue – uranium mining – they deliberately engineered their own defeat.

    Labor’s same sex entitlements policy is so progressive the Libs will support it (once Howard has gone). Labor’s climate change policy is so progressive they are happy to ignore the scientists and do nothing about immediate emissions cuts. Labor’s education revolution is so revolutionary it channels even more hundreds of millions into elite private schools to give them computers they were buying for themselves. Labor’s tax policy is so progressive they want to reduce the top marginal tax rate for the already uber-rich.

  33. Secular Party is a brand new party posting unendorsed candidates on the senate ballot. It’s basically civil libertarian and could, in the future, go towards the left or the right, depending on what influences it.

  34. Geoff says:

    Labor right wing have control of caucus federally and in all states, and Labor left are constantly defeated by them. It has been that way for at least many decades and will not change. That is why so many left Labor members have joined The Greens. The impact of Labor left MP’s on Labor policy is minimal.

    An increasing Green vote and Greens MP’s has much more impact on Labor policy than a few progressives from Labor left who will constantly be defeated.

    When Michael Organ won the Cunningham by-election for The Greens, Labor immediately shifted policy on a key inner city issue to help keep The Greens at bay in an inner city seat.

    Labor has picked up on a number of Greens policies over the years and attempted to Greenwash Labor’s image on other issues to try and stave off the drain of left voters and ALP members heading towards the Greens.
    eg. Greenhouse – where Labor supports expansion of the coal industry and the mythology of clean coal technology, while constantly suggesting to voters that Labor is strong on renewable energy.

    The comment that the Greens have a headline grabbing style is just a cheap shot. Labor and the other party’s are no better.

    The Greens support most Labor government legislation throughout Australia, but there are times when the legislation is conservative and its best not to compromise and simply vote against a bill – but the Greens are capable of compromise contrary to what was asserted in “Progressing the Senate”. we have already given a commitment to support a Rudd government’s roll back of WorkChoices even though Labor’s policy is quite weak on some aspects of workers’ rights. Greens will move amendments in the Senate to try and improve it.

    In any case if the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate Labor will get its way about 98% of the time. If Labor puts up conservative legislation – as it often does when in government, the Coaliton Senators will back it, and if Labor puts up progressive legislation the Greens will vote for it.

    There are plenty of Labor members who are going to vote Green in the Senate for the above reasons.

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