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Swill? Moi?

A disruptive Senate is a reflection of a healthy, modern, democratic society

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

The internet is driving the biggest change to society since the industrial revolution drew people from the land to the city. Institutions in business, politics, education, media and entertainment are being marginalised, sidelined and even eliminated. As TV transformed the world by allowing us to see what was happening in the world – the internet has completed the transformation by allowing us to connect with the rest of the world.

They call it disruption. The internet and smartphones are allowing people to agree between themselves that one will provide a service to the other at an agreed price – regardless of what the government might say. Sharing technology like Uber is disrupting the taxi industry; Air BnB is disrupting hotels; Spotify is disrupting the music industry; Netflix the film industry and Freelancer professional services.

The old order is being challenged by newer, leaner and more responsive operators.

Politicians and their advisers don’t know what to do about this disruption. The pace of change is outstripping their ability to manage or regulate it. They simply do not have the skills or experience to make decisions necessary in today’s world. Not only that, they don’t know what they don’t know.

Now I accept I’ve only been in parliament five minutes but as the old Polish proverb goes, ‘The guest sees in 5 minutes what the host doesn’t see in a lifetime’.

My premise is that we are seeing the start of disruption politics, or how disruption is affecting democracy.


Over the decades the major political parties around the world have become top-down production-line party machines or factories, churning out party apparatchiks and career staffers who become Members of Parliament. Many of them have never had a proper job. They go to university, get a job working for a politician or a union and then become politicians themselves. They know how politics works but they don’t know how the world works. The results are there for all to see.

The major parties and their machine men live in a world that is foreign to common people. Voters aren’t stupid. They know when they’re being patronised or taken for a ride, and are responding by voting for someone else. Our Senate demonstrates this trend. In 2007, 12 per cent of the electorate voted for parties other than the Coalition, Labor and Greens. By 2013 it had grown to 25 per cent.

Our British cousins have followed a similar trend. This ‘Other’ vote (that is, other than the Labor or Conservative parties) has grown to 33 per cent.

The major parties have clearly recognised this disruption and now complain about the minor parties upsetting their cartel. Like the taxi industry, the major parties have no-one to blame but themselves. And their response is the same – taxi companies lobby governments to shut out Uber, the major parties plan to change the Senate voting system to shut out the minor parties.

Since the last election, the Senate election result has been variously described as ‘a lucky dip… a lottery… and not the will of the people’.

Let’s test that claim. At the last election, the major parties (Coalition, Labor and the Greens) received around 75 per cent of the primary vote yet received 85 per cent of seats. In WA, they received only 71 per cent of the vote but received 85 per cent of Senate seats. In SA, the major parties received just 57 per cent of the primary vote yet took 67 per cent of the Senate seats. If anything, the will of the people is that fewer major party senators should be elected, not more.

Language like ‘shadowy preference deals’, ‘gaming the system’ and ‘manipulating the voting system’ is dishonest, shallow and simply an attempt by the major parties to delegitimise the election of non-major party senators. What did Adam Smith say about ‘industry incumbents conspiring to keep out new entrants’?

And why the obsession with first preference votes anyway? This is Australia. Like most lads of my vintage, I played a lot of sport when I was young. In all my years of playing I don’t recall ever being voted best-on-ground. To be truthful, I don’t think I was ever second best on ground either, but I do recall receiving lots of third best votes. Now in a 22 game season, it would have been quite possible to receive 22 third preferences for a total of 22 votes. It’s also possible for a player to receive 7 best-on-ground votes at 3 votes each to give a total of 21 votes. Would we say that was a ‘manipulation of the voting system’ and demand that the medal be taken off that little back-pocket player and give it to the star centre-half forward? Of course not.

At the 2013 election, I received about 40,000 first preference votes (about 4 per cent), but I received 140,000 (14 per cent) second, third, fourth… and twenty fourth etc preferences votes. All up they came to more than enough to be elected. In fact, I received so many second, third etcetera preference votes that I was elected in the No 5 position ahead of the Liberal candidate who was elected to the No 6 position.

The irony is, the changes proposed by the ‘industry incumbents’ would simply entrench the Greens as the permanent balance-of-power party. Whichever of the major parties won office in the Lower House, in the Senate their legislative agenda would be held hostage to the Greens. In fact, if the changes proposed by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) were in place this term, the government wouldn’t have been able to get any of its key policies through the parliament.

There’s no doubt people have lost faith in the professional political class.Federal politics desperately needs a more diverse gene pool. And whilst the first crop of crossbenchers has been somewhat of a mixed bag, there’s an old Russian proverb, ‘Perviy Blin Komon, the first pancake is always lumpy.’ I’m sure as time passes the calibre of crossbenchers will improve. Independents and minor parties are seen as both an alternative and a protest. I note people are forever harking back to the Hawke-Keating-Howard days of Government and Opposition co-operation. But this is not 1995. You can’t pour new wine into old wine skins. The world is developing new wine skins.

It’s called disruption democracy.

Bob Day AO is a Senator for South Australia.


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