The battle for control of the Australian Senate led to an all-night debate over the Turnbull government’s plans to change how voters will choose who they elect.
Around 1.30pm, the government got the inevitable result it was seeking and the laws were passed following a marathon sitting of nearly 30 hours that began on Thursday morning.
The Senate voting reforms were passed, 36-23.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie was absent.
The fractious debate over the new laws saw the Greens and South Australian Independent senator Nick Xenophon backing the government proposals. But they were fiercely opposed by an angry Labor party, which has been attempting to filibuster the vote, forcing the Upper House to sit all night.
Xenophon, known for his political stunts, wore pyjamas around the parliament, before being told his attire was inappropriate.
At around 2am, Labor’s Doug Cameron began quoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail, using the insult “You empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction” in the chamber as abusive verbal blows were traded across the floor.
— ABC News (@abcnews) March 17, 2016
The government did not have the numbers to gag debate and attempts by Labor to suspend debate also failed. Liberal senator and finance minister Mathias Cormann made it clear the Senate would not rise until the changes are passed.
“If you still want to be here on Easter Friday, on Good Friday, that’s fine,” he said. “Let’s be here on Easter Friday, we will be here until this legislation is dealt with.”
Cormann pointed out the debate was one for the record books:
Debate on Senate voting reform has now been going for more than 34 hours. In 40 minutes will be 9th longest debate since 1990.
— Mathias Cormann (@MathiasCormann) March 17, 2016
The changes are designed to prevent micro-parties, such as Victorian senator Ricky Muir’s Motoring Enthusiasts Party and John Madigan from the Democratic Labor Party from using preference swaps to get elected. Voters will be allowed to direct their own preferences when voting above the line, putting an end to the deals that saw four senators – two each from NSW and Victoria – enter parliament via the 2013 election on less than 3% primary vote. In Muir’s case it was 0.51%.
The ABC has put together an excellent explainer on how the changes will work.
— ABC News (@abcnews) February 22, 2016
But NSW Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm argued the changes will disenfranchise millions of people who don’t vote for the major parties.
“They don’t much like the big parties, our voters. They just like the little ones,” he said.
“So in another election, under this new voting system, because their votes don’t go any further than what they’re going to put on the ballot paper, they will cease at number six.”
Labor’s Stephen Conroy argues that with 96% of people voting above the line, nearly 3.5 million votes will now exhaust, essentially creating a first-past-the-post system for parties who gather the most primary votes.
He told the ABC earlier today that “the Greens have sold out their principles so they can get 12 green bums on red leather”.
While Paul Keating once labelled the Senate “unrepresentative swill”, the current Coalition government has regularly blamed the cross-bench for blocking its legislative agenda and is hoping to once more gain control of the Upper House, with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull looking at calling a double-dissolution election.
That means rather than the usual half-Senate election being held, all seats would be up for re-election, cutting short the terms of the likes of NSW micro-party senators John Madigan and Bob Day, as well as former Palmer United-turned-independents Glenn Lazarus and Jacqui Lambie.
Labor has focused much of its anger at the Greens for the supporting the government with ALP senator Penny Wong labeling Greens leader Richard Di Natale a “Liberal lap dog”, while Stephen Conroy alluded to a recent magazine photo of Di Natale wearing a black skivvy, called him “the black Wiggle”.
The Greens leader claims the changes to how people vote for the Senate were needed to stop “the slow and gradual erosion of democracy”.
The crossbenchers and Labor have sought to embarrass the Greens this week by attempting to bring forward debate on a Greens motion on same sex marriage, only to see the party side with the Liberals in voting against debating the bill. The Greens had said it would be debated yesterday, but it will not be discussed before Parliament rises for the seven-week autumn break.
By lunchtime Friday, even the parliamentary Twitter accounts were feeling the pain of the marathon session
For you @AUSenate we could probably swing a double shot…
— About the House (@AboutTheHouse) March 18, 2016
And scientifically speaking, it’s worth noting that senators who stayed awake for that long were technically “drunk”, since being sleepless for 21 hours impairs your judgement to a level equivalent to a blood alcohol content level of 0.08.
Yesterday, valedictory speeches by some departing MPs offered another signal that Turnbull is planning to head to the polls on July 2. To do that he will need to bring the Budget forward a week to May 3.
The new Senate voting rules apply for any election after July 1, 2016 and the legislation will now return to the House of Representatives for consideration.
The Senate has now moved on to consider other bills scheduled for deliberation and debate on March 17.
The March 17 sitting has now become the 3rd longest in the last 25 years.