Senator Bill Heffernan is the Duke of Edinburgh of Australian politics. He’s paid handsomely by the public purse, inexplicably adored by our ruler, and known primarily for his gaffes. His career illustrates everything that’s wrong about how the Senate works in this country. At least Prince Philip, for all his numerous flaws, had the decency to start an awards scheme.
Bill Heffernan was appointed to the Senate in 1996 after the retirement of Michael Baume. In 2004, he was re-elected until 2011 at the top of the Liberal ticket in NSW. That’s right. Even after the disgraceful Michael Kirby scandal, where he made completely unfounded homophobic allegations against one of Australia’s most eminent judges and intellectuals, the Libs put him on top of their ticket. Thus assuring his re-election. And even though they rubber-stamped his return, it was the Liberal Party machine, not voters in NSW, who guaranteed he’d be haunting the halls in Parliament until the next decade.
That’s because each of the major parties is pretty much guaranteed to win two seats in NSW every time, with an outside chance of one of the other seats going to a minor party. Kerry Nettle from the Greens won in 2001. But in practical terms, there is no way on earth that the person who’s #1 on the Liberal ticket is not going to get elected. To elect those further down the list instead would require a million NSW voters both to understand the way half-Senate elections work and to take the time to vote below the line. In other words, there’s about as much chance of it happening as Bill has of making a valuable contribution on behalf of the State he’s represented for a decade.
In America, the electoral system reflects the idea that a party’s choice of candidate can be as important as the voters’ choice of party. That’s why primary elections, for which campaigning is already underway in earnest, are so important. In next year’s Presidential election, Bush’s outstanding performance has pretty much guaranteed a Democrat victory, at least according to current polls. So the question of which Democrat that will be becomes enormously important. Hillary Clinton and the far-left candidate Dennis Kucinich offer very different presidencies. While if John McCain had won the Republican primary in 2000, it’s unlikely we’d have troops in Iraq today.
There are primaries for the Senate in America as well. But we don’t get that luxury in Australia. And while party members have their say to a varying degree, in America all you have to do is register for the party you support and you can vote in a primary. It’s much less onerous than actually joining a party (you don’t get endless taxpayer-funded junk mail in your letterbox, for one thing) and doesn’t cost anything.
If Senator Heffernan had been required to defend his decade in Canberra to Liberal voters before he was re-elected, if he’d been challenged by other Liberals for that automatic spot, I wonder what he would have said about his record. His Wikipedia entry is almost entirely devoted to gaffes and scandals. I’ve seen him out on the campaign trail, and he is a genuinely loose cannon – I suspect the theory that he’s a sophisticated political operative for John Howard are greatly exaggerated. I saw him outside Town Hall on NSW Election day, handing out Greens flyers and shouting “Decriminalise drugs! Vote Green!” (In fact, I got it on camera here.) And, as hilarious as I find some of his antics, I really don’t see how NSW taxpayers are getting much value from them.
His wacky trick of disrupting ALP press conferences, like a kind of elected version of Norman Gunston, is well and good. But there wasn’t a whole lot to laugh about in his comments on Julia Gillard. For someone who’s pretty much only in Parliament because, let’s face it, he’s part of the very small boy’s club called “mates of John Howard” to say that Gillard can’t understand voters (because she’s “deliberately barren”) is just ridiculous. At a time when the US has its first female Presidential frontrunner, the incident shows us just how retrograde our own politics can be.
As ever, it’s Heffernan, not his victim, whose values are at odds with the mainstream. And as ever, he’ll make a meek apology, receive the gentlest of public rebukes from his buddy in the Lodge, and be left to rant and rave another day.
And that’s why we could use primaries for the Senate. Look, if Liberal voters like the guy, and think that his comments about Julia Gillard, Michael Kirby, Catholic priests and his supposed role in John Brogden’s downfall appropriately represent their interests, then fine. I just think the system ought to require that test to be fulfilled. (And I don’t think he’d get Helen Coonan‘s vote.) Because NSW Liberal supporters (the voters, I mean, not the party hacks) are generally a fairly moderate bunch, and I imagine they’re embarrassed every time Bill does his thing. And it ought to take more than being a loyal sidekick of John Howard’s to earn you 15 years representing this state in the Senate.
I’m glad – if a little surprised – to learn that John Howard has friends. And if he chooses Bill Heffernan as one of his closest, then I guess either his standards aren’t high, or he finds the man amusing. As I do, admittedly. I’m sure I’d enjoy having a beer with Bill, if we kept the conversation away from gays and women, and if he was a right-wing shock jock, I’d tune in for a laugh. Well, until he was kicked off air for saying the kind of thing he likes to say under Parliamentary privilege. But I don’t see why he should be in the Senate, and I wish his old mate would tap him gently on the shoulder and tell him his time’s up.