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Rau declares war on micro-parties in Upper House

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Upper House micro-parties would be marginalised and double-dissolution elections introduced to South Australia for the first time under a series of reforms introduced to state parliament late yesterday.

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They follow Attorney-General John Rau’s much-noted frustration with the democratic process being ‘hijacked’ by parties that manage to get elected on preference deals despite garnering little more than a handful of votes.

But he concedes parties such as Dignity for Disability would likely lose their parliamentary representation if the bills are passed.

The reforms will seek to:

If passed, the former two proposals will need to be ratified at a referendum to be held at the same time as the next election, in March 2018.

The latter plan would see the Legislative Council adopt the “Sainte-Laguë method”, whereby seats are allocated to those with the most primary votes.

“It doesn’t affect major parties or second-tier parties like the Greens and Family First, but it won’t allow anybody to take the last spot simply by being in the right place at the right time,” Rau told InDaily.

Essentially, those with a full quota get elected, with the remaining seats allocated to those who get closest to a quota in their own right.

“We’ve already seen at a federal level the consequences of not dealing with the problem,” Rau said, arguing that electing parties such as the Motoring Enthusiasts Party was “little more democracy than getting a phonebook, putting a blindfold on and pointing at a name at random”.

“This voting system will completely destroy the micro-party preference swapping model,” he said.

“We’re not shutting them out … if they can command a decent percentage of the vote they’ll get elected.”

However, he conceded disability advocate Kelly Vincent’s party would not be in parliament if the model existed today. “Not if they get the vote they got last time,” he said.

“The Liberal Party would be elected in that spot.”

A Dignity for Disability spokeswoman told InDaily: “We have concerns about something that excludes smaller groups in our democracy, and anything that increases the dominance of the two old parties is cause for significant concern to us.”

They said the need for the likes of Vincent in parliament was demonstrated by around 1100 complex constituent cases her office is currently processing, many of them referred by fellow MPs.

But Rau insists his changes are “relatively conservative … because we’re quite serious about getting something actually achieved”.

“We thought we’d go for modest change that would get a fair degree of consensus, rather than something radical that gets skewered from day one,” he said.

Rau originally sought to curtail micro-parties’ creeping influence by reforming the electoral act, but he described those changes as “tinkering”.

However, other mooted reforms, such as reducing eight year terms to four and cutting the number of MLCs, are now on the backburner: “I think we’ve decided it’s best to pursue something that has the maximum prospect of finding broad consensus.”

The plan to ensure supply bills would see any Budget Appropriation Bill blocked or delayed for a month in the Upper House automatically passed.

“It says what happened to Whitlam in 1975 can’t happen here,” said Rau.

“I’d have thought if there’s not a consensus about that out there, I’d be very surprised.”

But he insisted “it doesn’t mean every single taxation measure has to be carried by the Upper House”.

“They just can‘t starve the Government out.”

Dignity for Disability MLC Kelly Vincent says the government’s efforts to employ people with disabilities have been “disgracefully inadequate”.

Dignity for Disability MLC Kelly Vincent would not be in parliament if the proposed reforms had been in place.

If any bill reaches a deadlock between both houses, Rau says “there should be a mechanism to break the deadlock”.

He wants SA to adopt the federal model, whereby the Government can call a double dissolution election.

“There’s no effective deadlock provision in our constitution at present … deadlock conference is ineffectual and goes nowhere,” he said.

“This is an extremely conservative solution to deadlock problems … it’s not going to be something you’d expect to happen all the time.

“If the Government is in a position where it has a strong position about a particular measure and is frustrated by the Upper House, they have the option of taking that to the people.”

Family First MLC Robert Brokenshire told InDaily of the proposed changes: “This is a deliberate attempt to reduce the number of small parties and independents in the Legislative Council”.

“The Government are not happy that they do have opposition in the Upper House. The Legislative Council is the check and balance for the South Australian community.

“South Australians … deliberately chose to put more small parties and independents in the cross benches, because they prefer that as a check and balance on the Government.”

He called the raft of proposals a “red herring”, because the Legislative Council had rarely prevented the Government from enacting its policy agenda.

“I say to the Government: show me – other than the carpark tax – show me where you’ve not got something through the Legislative Council where you’ve needed it,” he said.

“If they want reform they should be looking at reforming both the Legislative Council and (the House of Assembly),” he said.

But he welcomed a review of the deadlock conference structure “because it could be more open and transparent … than it is”.

– Additional reporting: Bension Siebert

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