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.