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Common sense prevails in Senate preferential voting changes

After the debacle of the Senate election last year, Parliament is looking at changing the way Australians vote. And for once, the changes actually make a good deal of sense.

In the wake of the national fiasco that was last year’s Senate election, Parliament has been grappling with the job of re-engineering its dysfunctional electoral system. On Friday came the gratifying news that the committee charged with tackling the matter will proceed down the path of common sense, by mutual agreement of the Coalition, Labor and the Greens.

While the technicalities remain to be ironed out, an interim report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has recommended following the example of the New South Wales upper house in allowing voters to rank parties in order of preference above the line, numbering as few or as many of the boxes as they see fit.

Those wishing to determine their order of candidates below the line will be required to number only as many boxes as there are vacancies for election, meaning six at a normal half-Senate election, 12 at a double dissolution, and two at an election in the territories.

Most importantly, the changes will do away with the defining abomination of the existing system, namely group ticket preferences and the enormous expenditure of time and effort demanded of voters wishing to determine the matter for themselves.

The main objective of the change is to put an end to preference-harvesting arrangements such as allowed Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party to snowball his way to a seat in Victoria with 0.51% of the statewide vote, a matter also addressed through a proposed tightening of party registration requirements.

Defenders of the status quo will argue that the election of a non-politician such as Muir represented the authentic will of an electorate so alienated from two-party rule that 32.5% chose an option other than Labor or the Coalition, reducing to 23.8% if the Greens are excluded. The problem with this argument is that the scale of this alienation was considerably less evident in the House of Representatives, where the respective figures were 21.1% and 12.4%.

As anyone who grappled with a Senate ballot paper last September should know, the difference between the two sets of figures is almost entirely down to a system that confounded many in their efforts to give expression to their genuine preference. Nor is it the case that the proposed changes are in all circumstances to the disadvantage of the major parties.

Group voting tickets have given the major parties a means to freeze out mutual threats to their hegemony, as they did by giving preferences to each other ahead of Peter Garrett and the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984 and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in 1998 and 2001.

Among the victims of the distortions produced by last year’s result was South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, whose 24.9% share of the South Australian vote failed to secure his ticket a second seat because his energies had been devoted to winning support from voters rather than preference negotiators.

Winning election at the Xenophon ticket’s expense with just 3.8% of the vote was Bob Day of Family First, whose submission to the committee’s inquiry argued that the only reform that needed pursuing was a dramatic reduction in the number of polling booths.

It should also be noted that allowing voters to exhaust their preferences means smaller parties will no longer need to amass a full quota to win a seat. Based on NSW experience, Antony Green estimates that minor parties could be competitive under the new system from a minimum of 5% of the vote.

Given the fractional shares of the vote recorded by most micro-parties last September, that may still seem a tall order. However, a thin spread of support across a huge field of contestants was itself a symptom of a regime that encouraged parties to disaggregate, as demonstrated by the existence of at least three separate parties promoting the cause of sport and recreation, together with a variety of single-issue concerns with a shared thread of social libertarianism.

By breaking the nexus between preference negotiation and electoral success, the new system will give minor players new incentives to forge coalitions, identify leadership figures with electoral appeal, and engage with voters in a meaningful way. In doing so it could even revitalise the broader campaign process, and in some small way redress the sense of alienation that undoubtedly exists among much of the electorate.

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  • 1
    Posted Monday, 12 May 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Thanx for this. There wasn’t much discussion of the proposal to raise the threshold for registering a party from 500 to 1,500 petitioners, which I could have done without as presently informed.

    I think this should read: ‘Nor is it the case that the proposed changes are in all circumstances to the advantage of the major parties.’ (Delete dis- .)

  • 2
    Jim Breen
    Posted Monday, 12 May 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    A pity they didn’t recommend a threshold vote of 5% in order to qualify for a seat. It works well in places like Germany and New Zealand.

  • 3
    Stuart Johnson
    Posted Monday, 12 May 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I think a threshold would be a bad idea. The problem isn’t people getting elected on a small primary vote, the problem is this happening due to the “lottery” of preference flows due to group ticket voting. I think it is perfectly acceptable for someone to be elected from less than 5% if it results from people actively allocating preferences to them - basically a candidate without a lot of first preferences, but who is considered acceptable by a lot of people who allocate first preferences to other candidates who get eleminated. Perhaps it’s not likely to happen but I see no need to specifically rule it out as a possibility. Of course the Liberal submission which went even further to basically eliminate votes for candidates below a certain threshold was awful.

  • 4
    Raaraa
    Posted Monday, 12 May 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    While this changes seem promising to me, I wonder what’s to stop Senate voting from descending into something like FPTP? I would imagine that the major parties would just field 6 candidates for each half-election state because they can afford to.

    Maybe a minimum number bigger than the number of candidates might help?

  • 5
    AR
    Posted Monday, 12 May 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Good news indeed but I fail to understand why not first of all eliminate the LINE?? It was only introduced mby PJK to corral voters who could count beyond ten unless it was a summer election.
    Put the part list headers in Bold and mandate only that the minimum preference vote be for the number of seats, or a simply percentage, say 10%.
    This would obviate the need for a threshold and cause preferential voting to become a force as a voter could vote as strategically as they chose, after the bare minimum.

  • 6
    PaulM
    Posted Monday, 12 May 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    AR, List voting was introduced for the 1984 election by RJLH

  • 7
    PDGFD1
    Posted Monday, 12 May 2014 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Mr. Bowe (and I don’t hold your residency against yiu either)

    However, agree with GavinM @1…
    “There wasn’t much discussion of the proposal to raise the threshold for registering a party from 500 to 1,500 petitioners, which I could have done without as presently informed.”

    It seems to me that if Independent candidates can stand, then surely 500 party members / petitioners is sufficient to assure a sensible approach… or do Independent political aspirants also have to come up with 1500 petitioners?

  • 8
    Posted Tuesday, 13 May 2014 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    You need 100 petitioners to nominate if you aren’t the candidate of a registered party. If you are the candidate of a registered party, nominating is simplicity itself - even if you’re a Senate candidate in a state where your party has zero presence. Taking into account the regimes which exist for checking a party’s membership bona fides, it was generally easier to get registered at state level than federally. You can quibble with the 1500 number, but the existing number clearly had to be raised if the system was going to be proportionate to what the states have in place.

  • 9
    Posted Tuesday, 13 May 2014 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    Sorry, should say: “it was generally easier to get registered at FEDERAL than STATE level”.

  • 10
    Posted Tuesday, 13 May 2014 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Thanx William. So if I now understand correctly: candidates not representing a registered party need 100 petitioners, candidates representing a registered party need perhaps a nominator and a seconder or possibly not even that, while people wishing to register a political party would need 1,500 members who aren’t a member of another party.

    I agree that consistency and perhaps even proportionality between the Commonwealth and the States is highly desirable. But is there any technical reason why it is better to increase the number of members to register a party federally rather than, say, reduce the number of members needed to register a party in the States?

    One of the advantages of registering a political party is that the candidate gets their party name printed next to their name on the ballot paper, and an astutely chosen name of a political party can also be a tag line. Would it be ok to allow candidates who are not representing a party to have printed next to their name on the ballot paper a tag line, such as:

    Tammany Hall - promoting electoral fairness.

  • 11
    Posted Tuesday, 13 May 2014 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    Gavin:

    Candidates representing a registered party need perhaps a nominator and a seconder or possibly not even that”

    Not even that.

    But is there any technical reason why it is better to increase the number of members to register a party federally rather than, say, reduce the number of members needed to register a party in the States?”

    No, but the issue that seems to need addressing at the moment is that the hurdles are too low, hence huge ballot papers and preference harvesting.

    Would it be ok to allow candidates who are not representing a party to have printed next to their name on the ballot paper a tag line …”.

    Precisely that is allowed in South Australia, where party lists for the upper house at the March election included “Independent No Domestic Violence”, “Independent Legal Voluntary Euthanasia” and, by far the most successful, “Independent Nick Xenophon Team”. Not to mention “Independent Palmer United”, PUP having failed to get its registration in order in time (they did not campaign very hard, or poll very well). Independent lists used to be given five words to play with, but it was knocked back to three at this election.

  • 12
    Posted Tuesday, 13 May 2014 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    Thanx William. I’m starting to catch up. (1) Optional preferential after 6 or 12 and ban group voting tickets to reduce the number of micros getting elected, and (2) increase the number of members for registering a party to reduce the size of the ballot paper and reduce the number of micros getting elected.

    So now I’m persuaded that the number of members needed to register a party should be increased to 1,500.

  • 13
    Douglas Evan
    Posted Tuesday, 13 May 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Now let’s see optional preference allocation in the lower house vote and we might be getting a bit closer to seeing the will of the electorate reflected in the make-up of the Parliament.

  • 14
    Stuart Johnson
    Posted Tuesday, 13 May 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Optional preferential in the lower house would just mean that the vote expresses less of the will of the electorate. In the Senate it is worthwhile because the number of candidates leads to a large informal rate, which has been fixed by group ticket voting and optional preferential causes less problems than that. Also there are so many candidates that it is very hard for anyone to know who they all are and hence meaningfully preference them.
    In the lower house the smaller number of candidates means this isn’t an issue. People resent having to put numbers against candidates they don’t like but their vote will only end up with such a candidate if it helps them against someone the voter likes even less - preferencing fewer candidates can only give the same or a worse outcome then you would otherwise get.

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