03 February 2016
by Phillip Coorey
Government moves on Senate reform as Turnbull threatens early poll
The Turnbull government is considering moving quickly to change voting rules to stop micro-parties gaming the preference system to win Senate spots, in a move that would keep in play the option of an early election.
While still keen on going the full term and holding the next election in the spring, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Coalition MPs on Tuesday that an early, double dissolution election remained a "live option".
On Tuesday, after question time, Mr Turnbull canvassed voting reform directly with Labor, which is split on the issue, while acting Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann has sought talks with the Greens who, along with Nick Xenophon, are supportive of change and eager to vote it through the Senate.
Sources said that the government wants the changes through Parliament before it rises on March 17 for seven weeks. This would enable it to call an early election if it wanted to. If it chose to go full term, as is its preference, it would still stop micro-parties gaming the system, although the aim of cleaning up the Senate would take longer.
If the government wants to go early, which would be before mid-July, it must hold a double-dissolution election, which is a full Senate election. In these elections, Senate candidates need only half the usual quota of votes to secure a spot.
If the voting reforms were not in place and the government held a double dissolution, it would risk filling the Senate with many more micro-party crossbenchers. If it first passed the reforms and then held a double dissolution, of the eight Senate crossbenchers, it is likely only Senator Xenophon would be returned.
If it made the changes and went full-term, to a half Senate election in spring, only John Madigan, who was elected in 2010, would disappear. The others – Jacqui Lambie, David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day, Glenn Lazarus, Dio Wang and Ricky Muir – were all elected in 2013 and would have another three years of their terms left.
Inclination to ban group voting tickets
It is believed the government is inclined towards banning group voting tickets and allowing voters to number Senate candidates one to six either above or below the line. Preferences would exhaust at number six and not be allocated to micro-parties using complex back room deals that see them win seats with just a tiny primary vote.
The government, under both Tony Abbott and Mr Turnbull, has been reluctant to implement the changes, which were recommended more than a year ago by a parliamentary committee. The government has feared annoying the crossbench and jeopardising the passage of legislation.
Presently, the government is prevailing upon the crossbench to pass legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. It wants the bill passed by March, if it is defeated it will qualify as a trigger for a double dissolution.
The government already has an industrial relations trigger – the Registered Organisations Commission Bill.
Mr Turnbull's statement to the party room on Tuesday was regarded as a threat to wipe out the crossbench with a double dissolution should it block the ABCC bill.
Mr Turnbull told the party room he wanted to go at "the "normal time" – between August and October – but that "was not set in stone".
A double dissolution was a "live option" that would "have to be weighed up".