The most unexpected item on Eric Abetz’s wishlist
of earlier this week on electoral reform has not received much media
attention – his proposal to introduce above-the-line preferential
voting for Senate elections. Instead of having their preferences
allocated automatically by the parties (in ways that almost all voters
remain ignorant of), voters would number the party boxes themselves.

This change has been advocated by Bob Brown, and Greens sources are
puzzled as to why the government should take it up. Although the Greens
were shafted by the old above-the-line system in Victoria last year,
Abetz is probably more concerned about the automatic flow of Greens and
other left-wing preferences to Labor. If voters have to fill in the
numbers themselves, some of those will leak to the Coalition. The
change would also eliminate the chance of a micro-party, such as one of
Glenn Druery’s outfits in New South Wales, sneaking in by harvesting
the preferences from a large number of other parties.

This is one aspect of a more general point: that, as pointed out on Crikey by both me and Antony Green,
preferential voting now advantages Labor more than the Coalition.
Despite that, Abetz is still talking about compulsory, not optional
preferences (a point that Bob Brown’s response fails to pick up on). Wouldn’t optional preferential above-the-line voting benefit the government even more?

The government won’t move to optional preferences in the House of Reps
because it would put a loaded gun into the hands of the National Party.
For the Senate, however, there is a different reason: Abetz will be
hoping to increase the number of informal votes. The poorly-educated
and the non-English speaking are much less likely to number all the
squares correctly, and they will be predominantly Labor voters. (Bryan
Palmer at ozpolitics has a good discussion of this.)

It’s impossible to say how great this effect would be. Last year, in the NSW Senate election, there were 29 groups,
and numbering 29 boxes would be a daunting task. But if Abetz’s change
is implemented, many of those small groups won’t run: losing the
ability to automatically direct their preferences would make it
pointless. The ballot paper would be smaller than last time; how much
smaller, we don’t know, but on that unknown will depend the size of the
government’s advantage.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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