Abbott's deadly dilemma on electoral reform

Tony Abbott finds himself in a tug-of-war between keeping the minor party-dominated Senate pushing through his policies and implementing genuine electoral reforms to prevent the gaming of preferences.

Comments from an internal party review by former Howard government minister David Kemp are a reminder of the invidious position Prime Minister Abbott finds himself in with regard to the senate. 

On the one hand, as The Australian reports, Kemp's review states that the Liberal Party was cheated out of senate seats at the last election, due to the 'gaming' of the preferences system by minor parties. And the Libs will be cheated again in 2016 if the Electoral Act is not changed. 

On the other hand, the Abbott government desperately needs the support of those 'gaming' minor parties to prosecute its program of junking Labor's major policy reforms – the carbon and mining taxes, the all-fibre NBN and so on. 

So the minor parties' major condition for supporting Abbott's agenda is that his government not fix the rules that allowed them to game the system in the first place. 

Being pivotal to a government's legislative agenda confers great power, but recent history has shown us that it can also bring out great deviousness and mendacity from a government. 

When Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie's support for the Gillard government was needed, his gambling reforms were on the agenda. Once his vote was no longer needed, they were binned (Gillard's pokies betrayal cuts both ways, 24 January 2012).

Whatever one might consider to be Wilkie's faults, duplicity and dishonour really aren't among them. He was coldly betrayed, because he put too much faith in the government honouring its word. As I wrote at the time: "Julia Gillard smiled and shook his hand, but behind all the pleasantries seems to have been thinking 'while there's a gun to my head this deal means something'."

Kemp's review, and the many other commentators who have called for electoral reform, raise the possibility that the Abbott government could do a similarly spectacular backflip on electoral reform closer to 2016 – once its key legislative agenda is complete. 

But will it be able to? The minor party senators, who will hold the balance of power on issues such as the carbon tax, are not going to do any deals on a handshake. Mindful of the Wilkie betrayal, they will approach the seat of power with more caution and get their agreements in writing. 

Does that mean electoral reform is off the agenda? 

Again, it is an invidious choice for the Abbott government. Abbott, like any serious political thinker, knows that ending the preference gaming is about improving democracy. When states send people they've never heard of to Canberra, there is a big problem. 

So to fail to act will give ammunition to Labor, the Greens and even potentially to Clive Palmer, to complain about 'grubby deals that trash democracy' – or language to that effect. 

However, to plough ahead with electoral reform would see the government's agenda grind to a halt. 

What a ghastly dilemma. How does one weigh up the will of the people to 'scrap the tax' against the will of the people to know who they're electing to the house of review?

Doing both at the same time is the desired option. Labor managed that dilemma with Wilkie by lying. It's unlikely Abbott will even have that option.