Sep 12, 2013

Reforming the Senate: which model would work best?

The calls for reform in electing senators have grown louder after the weekend result. But what's the best model to fix it? Crikey's poll-cruncher examines the options.

William Bowe — Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe

Editor of The Poll Bludger

Australian Senate

Ballot papers the size of tablecloths. Parties running with no further purpose in mind than funnelling preferences in directions unknown to most of those voting for them. A clamour for reform to prevent a repeat of the whole fiasco. Welcome to 1999, and the aftermath of that year's New South Wales state election. That election entered political folklore on account of an upper house ballot paper that measured 100 by 70 centimetres, featuring 264 candidates representing 81 groups in pursuit of 21 seats. Among the parties involved were the Marine Environment Conservation Party, the Women's Party, Save the Forests, the Marijuana Smokers Rights Party and the Gay and Lesbian Party, all of which did their bit to elect Malcolm Jones of the Outdoor Recreation Party off a base of just 7,264 votes out of 3,557,762, or 0.21% of the vote. It took a while for the Senate to catch up, owing to the much higher quota where only six seats are up for election, but it did so in sufficiently fine style on Saturday to turn electoral reform into a topic of water cooler conversation. The apparent success of the Liberal Democratic Party, Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party and Australian Sports Party has particularly focused minds on the above-the-line voting system, which was introduced in 1984 to relieve the average voter of having to laboriously copy out her favoured party's how-to-vote card in order to register a formal vote. The obvious model for reform is that pursued in NSW after 1999, which independent Senator Nick Xenophon appears set to pursue with the introduction of a private members' bill. Together with raising the hurdles for registering parties and running grouped candidates, this involved abolishing group voting tickets by allowing voters to number multiple boxes above the line, with their vote exhausting at the point where no further preference were provided. Such a system would be consistent with the sound principle that voters should be free to do as much or as little with their votes as they see fit, and given the most straightforward means practicable of achieving that end. As with the optional preferential voting regimes for the lower houses of NSW and Queensland, voters using this system have proved largely content to simply number a single box. Consequently, the final seats are typically won by the candidates whose starting point is nearest to a quota. Some complain that this amounts to a de facto "first past the post system", but this doesn't seem like much of an argument so far as elections for multiple seats are concerned. It would surely be preferable to require that parties be made to earn preferences from voters who ultimately prefer other parties, rather than being gifted them either begrudgingly or unknowingly. To my mind at least, the consistency of such a reform with common sense can be illustrated by considering how Saturday's result would have looked if no preferences had been allocated:

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

17 thoughts on “Reforming the Senate: which model would work best?

  1. Paddlefoot

    It’s time to review compulsory voting – we only need engaged voters, not Qld loonies. The campaign in Indi is a good example – Ditch the Witch indeed.

  2. Dawson Colin

    I’m not convinced that abandoning compulsory voting would filter out one-issue candidates (or “no apparent issue” in the case of PUP). However it would likely accelerate the trend towards megabuck USA-style campaigns.

    I do think it should be compulsory for candidates to obtain some kind of political general knowledge certificate, perhaps administered by TAFE and a available to anybody who is willing to put in some effort.

  3. Michael Jones

    People should of course have the right to hand in a blank ballot paper, AFTER spending their time in the ballot box.

    They should certainly NOT have the ‘right’ to be bullied, obstructed, or outright forced out of their right to vote, by political opponents targeting their ethnicity, age-group, socioeconomic background, or other category.

    If you take away the compulsory ballot, you may as well end the secret ballot as well. That’s the reality that plays out in ‘democracies’ all over the world.

    I find that people who oppose the compulsory ballot come from one of two backgrounds.

    Either they have a staggering degree of ignorance about the damage that can and inevitably will be done to a democracy, by the erosion, deliberate or otherwise, of people’s connection to the democratic process.

    Or, they are after exactly that outcome.

  4. Richard Schmidt

    Isn’t it ironic how Australians generally hold our politicians in contempt at election time, and even complain about having to vote, yet complain even louder between elections when the party/leader(s) won’t do what we like them to do?
    It’s like the old adage: “If you want it done right (ie. how you want it), do it yourself!” (ie. stand for election yourself)

  5. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    @Michael Jones – I’m pretty sure we do have the right to hand in a blank ballot paper. I’m pretty sure we have the right to draw on it or use it as a paper aeroplane. It’s just compulsory to turn up.

  6. zut alors

    “…the snake oil peddled to television viewers over the last two weeks of the campaign by Clive Palmer…”

    How naive. All politicians peddle snake oil, the only variation is the strength.

    I’m an ardent supporter of compulsory voting. The price of Australia’s democracy is extremely cheap ie: to attend a polling booth approx every 3 years, once for a federal election, once for a state/territory election. It’s a privilege we’ve inherited – therefore some citizens undervalue it -and one which Australian women, in particular, fought for over a hundred years ago.

    At all costs we must avoid the US system.

  7. Michael Jones

    @Shaniq’ua Shardonn’ay My reason for mentioning that is that if somebody doesn’t want to vote, then that is how they can do it.

    That said, some people may argue that it’s not a well protected right, and I’m in favour of whatever level of formalisation of that right is required to get people to stop carrying on about this as if dropping by a local public building every few years is some kind of affront.

    And of course the public funding of parties is another matter.

  8. klewso

    Would non-compulsory voting stop the parties putting up under-achievers, time-servers, stooges and hacks for us to vote for, to serve “party/faction before electorate”, to send to Canberra?

  9. Gavin Moodie

    Does optional preferential above the line mean that voters express preferences for parties while optional preferential below the line mean that they express preferences for candidates?

    Does the method adopted by NSW and advocated by Xenophon and Bowe mean that if one were to vote above the line for 1 Libs, 2 Labor and 3 Greens, all the prefs would go to the Libs until their candidates ran out or they were left with candidates without a quota, in which case subsequent prefs go to Labor, then the Greens?

  10. CML

    The best, and most simple version of Senate voting I have heard about, is one where any/all candidates must receive 5% of the PRIMARY vote to be eligible for preference distribution. That would certainly disqualify most of these micro party candidates, some of whom did not even get 1% of the primary vote. Utter madness, and certainly not ‘democratic’.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details