03 November 2015
by Phillip Coorey

Labor frontbench splits over Senate voting changes

Labor frontbencher Gary Gray supports a deal between the government and Greens to change electoral laws and stop fringe parties gaming Senate preferences because it would force a divided Labor Party to decide where it stands.

Mr Gray, the shadow special minister of state, supports in their entirety the recommendations by the parliament's joint standing committee on electoral matters that would ensure a candidate could not win a Senate spot with only a very small primary vote.

Of the eight current crossbench Senators, its is argued only Nick Xenophon is there because of the wishes of voters. The Greens support the changes as does the government in principle. It has delayed legislating because the crossbenchers have threatened to revolt and further thwart its agenda.

"It's very clear that if the government were to propose legislation 100 per cent consistent with the recommendations of the [joint committee] it will go through the Senate and become law," Mr Gray said.

"Labor would have to take any such legislation seriously and consider it on its merits."

While there is general support within Labor for the changes, Senate powerbrokers Stephen Conroy and Sam Dastyari are leading opposition to change. One argument is that the changes would entrench Coalition dominance of the Senate, something Mr Gray and others have dismissed.

One Labor source who supports change said changing electoral laws to stop gaming preferences was surely a higher priority than giving 16-year-olds the vote, as was announced Saturday by Labor leader Bill Shorten and Senator Dastyari.

Under Tony Abbott, the government planned to introduce the laws closer to the next federal election to minimise the crossbench backlash.

Efforts to minimise backlash
The Greens remain eager for the changes to be made and since Malcolm Turnbull has been Prime Minister, Greens leader Richard di Natale and Senator Lee Rhiannon have been holding talks with Special Minister of State Mal Brough.

Mr Brough has also been meeting crossbenchers to try and minimise any backlash. One source said there was a chance legislation could be introduced and passed before Christmas.

If Mr Turnbull were to call an early election before July next year, it would be a double dissolution, meaning a full Senate election. If the changes were in place before then, all crossbenchers except Senator Xenophon would risk losing their seats.

If, as Mr Turnbull flagged on Monday, the government went full term and held the election in the spring of 2016, it would be a half-Senate election and only Victorian independent John Madigan would be at risk. The others would face defeat at the subsequent election.

The laws were unanimously endorsed by the committee members, which included former Labor veteran and long-time reform advocate John Faulkner in its ranks and now Speaker of the House of Representatives Tony Smith as its chairman.

In March, Mr Smith argued just two of the recommended changes were required. These were the introduction of optional preferential voting for above-the-line votes in the Senate, and the banning of group tickets, which disguise complex deals that allow preferences to cascade down through to minor and obscure parties.

Under the optional preferential changes being proposed, someone voting above the line would need only number one box and preferences would not be distributed.

Presently, preferences from above the line voting are exhausted through the chain of candidates organised through backroom deals.