21 November 2019
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My view of Barnaby Joyce and Jacqui Lambie

Malcolm Mackerras
12 September 2019

When I give talks to gatherings of one kind or another I am sometimes asked which features of the May federal election results give me the most pleasure. Having wrongly (and worse still, publicly) predicted that Labor would win, I cannot pretend to have been delighted by the return of the Morrison Government, so I content myself with expressing delight at these two features. The first was the excellent result for the Nationals. The second was the re-election to the Senate of Jacqui Lambie.

The Nationals won every seat I predicted they would win – both for the House of Representatives and the Senate. Their only loss was of a fortuitous Tasmanian Senate seat. When Lambie was kicked out of the Senate by the Pharisees sitting on the High Court bench, her votes were recounted with the effect that a certain Steve Martin became her replacement. He was her second candidate in 2016 but, once in the Senate, almost immediately joined the Nationals. That loss (universally predicted by experts) was the party’s only loss.

Following the 2016 election Barnaby Joyce annoyed me (and many other people) by his continual and excessive boasting comparing his electoral performance with that of Malcolm Turnbull. Then, when he was rightly sacked as Nationals leader, he decided to behave as though his return would be swift because Michael McCormack would prove to be such a failure. Fortunately, it did not turn out that way. The National Party’s performance was remarkably good and McCormack has been smiling broadly ever since. I admit, therefore, that one of the most pleasing features of this election result was the humiliation of Joyce. He is now just a discredited political commentator. He gets publicity whenever he opens his mouth but, frankly, I resent the publicity he gets.

One thing I have in common with Joyce is that we both think of the Senate as being unrepresentative swill. For entirely different reasons we have come to the same conclusion in that description. What annoys me is the different degrees of publicity we get for our different reform plans. My plan is eminently respectable from a principled democratic point of view but I cannot get the publicity I deserve. By contrast Joyce gets all the publicity he wants for a scheme that should be dismissed as ratbaggery of the silliest kind. The only merit of his scheme (which is also a merit of mine) is that it does not require any change to the Constitution.

He does have a point when he notes that only 18 of the 76 senators have offices located outside capital cities with 11 of the 12 senators from Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia based in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth respectively. What, therefore, does he propose? Incredibly, he proposes that each state be divided into six regions, only one of which would be for the capital city of the state. So, there would be two senators for Sydney and 10 for the five non-Sydney regions. Same with the other capital cities. Each senator would be directly chosen by the people for a six-year term with a rotation system as at present. The voting method would be the same as for the House of Representatives but there would be no by-elections, just the present system of party machine appointment to fill casual vacancies. 

It is true that the present Senate system is a giant malapportionment. There are 15 people in New South Wales for every single Tasmanian but they have the same 12 senators. However, that is justified by the federal character of the Australian Constitution. There is no malapportionment within states, only between them. So, using that logic Joyce justifies his scheme to have a malapportionment at both levels. Such a Senate, by the way, would have no Greens – a point presumably noted by Joyce, even if he dare not mention it out loud.

This coming weekend the Nationals will have their federal council meeting and Joyce will put before them this motion: “That this federal council of the Nationals move for the change in the allocation of senators from 12 per state to two per six regions within a state. No region can be larger than 30 per cent of the size of a state nor will any urban basin be allocated more than one region.” If the council is wise it will reject that motion. 

Having first been elected to a six-year term in September 2013 Jacquie Lambie was re-elected to another six-year term in July 2016. There is no point in her critics describing her low vote – that is the federal character of the Constitution. She should have been allowed to complete that term.

In my article published here on Thursday May 10 last year I gave my opinion of our federal judges, “Judges in our High Court are Pharisees”. They kicked her out of her seat so it gave me great pleasure when she became one of only four former senators to be voted back into her rightful place in the Senate. (The others were Katy Gallagher, Malcolm Roberts and Larissa Waters.) She is personally a very pleasant woman and the ultimate Aussie battler. Good on her.

How responsibly will she perform her role? Very responsibly I predict. She will copy the style of the late Brian Harradine who was also repeatedly elected on a very low vote and became one of the Senate’s adornments. He was able to use his power to bring significant benefit to Tasmania.

We know so far that she has enabled the passing of the government’s package of income tax cuts. In return she has won $157 million from the federal government to help the Tasmanian state government with its debt in respect of low-income housing. What she will decide in respect of the other measures on the government’s list time will tell. All those measures are, at best, virtue signalling only so it would be no tragedy if they were rejected as a consequence of Lambie’s vote. It might even be a good thing.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

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