Progressing Progressives: A Response

Art by Natasha Tareen.

In reading the latest edition of Woroni, Evolution, we were particularly interested in one article: “Why we need fewer progressive ACT Senate candidates” by Norm D Plum. The article argued that the existence of progressive independent candidates hijacked primary votes from Labor and Greens Senate candidates and claimed that such independents should instead run for positions in the House where they would have a greater chance of being elected. We believe that there is no issue with more progressive senate candidates in the ACT, and that it may even be preferable for prospective independent candidates to run for the upper house. As is typical in the discussion of politics, one can agree upon the ends but be conflicted on the means; though we ostensibly share a desire to oust Zed, we have some qualms with the arguments Plum presents.


We summarise Plum as having two main arguments. The first is the notion that independents adversely affect primary votes to major parties leading to an overall reduced chance of a progressive senator being elected. The second is that independents are unlikely to win in the Senate and thus should focus on the House.


To respond to the first, let us explain how the electoral system works for the Senate. In the proportional voting system, the state or territory votes as a whole, and candidates must secure a percentage of the votes, a third plus one in the ACT, to gain office. Voters get to rank their choices of candidates either ‘above the line’ or ‘below the line,’ and the candidate with the least votes gets eliminated and their votes redistributed. If a candidate secures more than the quota with first preference votes, the surplus is redistributed proportionately. This process repeats until all seats are secured.


For the prospective independent, this means it’s impossible that voting for an independent to harm the chances of major party candidates being elected. If the independent candidate is eliminated, their votes will flow on to other candidates. If a Liberal candidate was preferenced after said independent, then Labor would not have been that voter’s first preference anyway. Thus, there is no reason for any voter to avoid independents that they resonate with, in order to elect a major party candidate who is more likely to succeed. 


On the second argument, the idea that running in the lower house is ‘a comparatively easier pathway into Parliament’ is incorrect. In the Senate, there are 14 bonafide independents (people who are elected on their own or with a minor party, not including major party defectors). As there are 76 Senators in total; independents make up close to 20 percent of the chamber. In the House, however, there are only five bona fide independents out of 151 total MPs; the percentage is significantly lower at about four percent. An immediate takeaway from this examination should be that it is easier for an independent to be elected to the Senate.


This analysis can be taken deeper. Take the political melting pot of Queensland – the kingmaker state in elections. In the 2019 election, one third of Senators elected were independent, compared to one thirtieth in the House of Representatives – ostensibly 10 times more difficult to be elected. This should immediately cast doubt on the claim that getting elected to the House as an independent is easier than getting elected to the Senate.


One should also analyse the viability of running as an independent in lower house elections for the ACT. The Division of Bean, Fenner and Canberra are the ACT’scurrent federal divisions. In each of them, Labor has a two-party preferred vote of 57.5 percent, 60.6 percent and 67.1 percent – a strong lead considered not marginal. For the scheming independent wishing to throw their hat into the ring, the odds of success do not look particularly high when faced with this statistic.


The second issue with the argument that independents should try their luck in the House rather than the Senate is that it does not recognise the huge loss of bargaining power associated with being an independent in the House. The only times when an independent member of the House is effective at advancing their own policy is during times of minority government. For example, during the 2010 Gillard minority government, the Greens were able to negotiate the creation of a carbon tax. Similarly, during the 2019 Morrison minority government, independent members of Parliament were even able to pass the MedeVac bill, contrary to official LNP government policy. 


Whilst in these situations an independent has monumental bargaining power, minority governments are atypical. Instead, an independent has much more bargaining power in the Senate, where the governing party hasn’t had a majority since the 2000s and times of Howard. In this capacity, an independent Senator typically has much more control over all facets of policy due to how essential their vote is. To demonstrate the amount of power an independent senator has, one only has to look at Jacqui Lambie. In 2019, in exchange for voting for the government’s $158 billion dollar election flagship tax cut, she negotiated for the government to scrap all of Tasmania’s – her home state – public housing debt. This couldn’t be done by an independent in the House where the government almost always has a majority.


All in all, whilst Plum’s and our objectives overlap, we disagree on a number of points. We hope this article has convinced them and the readership of two things. One, that a preponderance of independents running for the Senate is not at all an electoral negative. And secondly, independents – especially in the ACT – should attempt to win the Senate ballot rather than the House.


“Why we need fewer progressive ACT Senate candidates” by Norm D Plum can be found on page 55 of Woroni Vol. 72 issue 1”


Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 2 ‘To Be Confirmed’

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