Antony Green yesterday described
one of the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral
Matters, the introduction of compulsory above-the-line preferences for
Senate elections (already foreshadowed last week by Eric Abetz), as “an
absolute stinker.” Like Antony, I’m a supporter of optional
preferential voting, but I think he’s exaggerating the effect of what
the government plans.

Antony has horrific suggestions of how many squares
a voter will have to fill in – 29 based on last year’s Senate election
in New South Wales, 48 going by the last South Australian state election. But those
elections had group ticket voting, where parties could allocate their
preferences automatically. When that ability is removed – which is the
whole point of making voters number the squares themselves – the
incentive for most of those tiny fringe and feeder groups to run
disappears.

In the days before group ticket voting, many fewer
groups stood for the Senate. In 1977, one of the last half-Senate
elections before the change, there were only ten groups standing in
NSW, eight in Victoria, seven in Queensland and South Australia, six in
Western Australia and just four in Tasmania. I expect the numbers would
be higher now (numbers of candidates in the House of Reps have
increased as well), but still manageable.

Some increase in the informal vote is to be
expected, but from the government’s point of view that is an advantage,
not a disadvantage. If the threat that it will be out of control (as
Antony fears) forces the government to rethink its plans, then it will
drop the whole idea of changing the above-the-line system rather than
open the door to optional preferential voting.

Antony is right to say that the government’s
“refus[al] to countenance any form of optional preferential voting is
breathtaking”, but I don’t think it’s at all surprising. Liberal Party
members for 60 years have had it drummed into their heads that their
success depends on the preferential system and optional preferences are
a diabolical Labor Party plot. In strictly numerical terms, optional
preferential voting would now work against Labor, but its capacity to
exacerbate Coalition tensions if introduced for the lower house is
still a powerful reason for the government not to move in that
direction.

Dr Graeme Orr, Senior Lecturer at Griffith University Law School, writes:

Not often I disagree with Antony the Electoral Guru, but his fear of
preferential voting above the line may be over-stated, especially since in
principle it’s a great idea. He’s right to worry about a blow-out of informal
votes. But since we’ll now have compulsory preferences for both Senate and
Reps, it shouldn’t be too complicated for the AEC to promote the new rules.
Heck, it may may even reduce ‘1’ only informal voting in the Reps.

Anthony invokes the 1977 NSW Senate
informality of nearly 10%, when voters had to rank 33 candidates. But the
Senate formality laws are saner now: voters can make 3 or more misnumberings
and their vote is saved, up to the point of the misnumbering (section 270 of the
Electoral Act – which if the government has any brains it will surely extend to
cover boxes above the line).

I agree
in principle that optional preferential voting should be enacted federally. But
if the Liberals proposed it today, they would be accused of nobbling Labor,
which relies so heavily on preferences to be competitive. (One suspects they
aren’t proposing it because it would force joint tickets with the Nationals, who
the Libs can sideline on separate tickets now in every state.)

Peter Fray

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