As we wait to hear whether Western Australia will return to the polls this year for a fresh Senate election, the Abbott government is looking at ways of stopping some of last year’s unusual Senate results from happening again. Yesterday, Fairfax papers reported the government wants “the names ‘Liberal’ and ‘Labor’ [to] be quarantined for use only by the major political parties … to prevent micro parties capitalising on voter confusion”.

This has been a Liberal Party objective for a while, dating back to the era of Liberals for Forests a decade ago. That party started out as a WA environmentalist group, but in the eastern states it morphed into a preference-harvesting vehicle masterminded by Glenn Druery, who came close to winning a Senate seat in New South Wales in 2004.

The Howard government attempted to deal with this unwanted competition by changing the Electoral Act. For a time this worked: Liberals for Forests disappeared, and when the Liberal Democratic Party sought federal registration it did so under the name “Liberty and Democracy Party”, keeping the same initials but avoiding any charge of being misleading.

But in 2009 the Administrative Appeals Tribunal construed the new requirement narrowly, and the LDP was able to convince the Australian Electoral Commission to let it use its original name. Under that name, it won a Senate seat for NSW last year with 9.5% of the vote.

The LDP, of course, would like you to believe that this was a result of genuine voter sentiment flowing its way. In reality, there’s no doubt the greater part of its vote represented people who were trying to vote for the Coalition but, confused by the absurdly long ballot paper, seized instead on the LDP — which was conveniently located in the first column.

Anyone who disputes that conclusion should first study the figures presented yesterday by Antony Green on the matter. As Green points out, it’s also true that even with a much lower vote the LDP might still have won a seat due to Druery’s complex preference deals.

The ALP has a similar problem with the Democratic Labour Party (as it now calls itself — the “u” was added just last year), which won a Senate seat in Victoria in 2010 and a Legislative Council seat in 2006. Its vote is very clearly sensitive to whether or not it appears ahead of the ALP on the ballot paper, suggesting that its victories have also been the result of voter confusion.

So this looks like a win-win proposition for the major parties. Introduce legislative reform to reserve the words “Liberal” and “Labo(u)r” for themselves. Labor’s votes will guarantee passage through the Senate, and pesky competitors on both sides will be disposed of.

The objections, of course, are predictable: not just from the LDP and the DLP, but from minor parties in general, which see a dangerous precedent in the major parties voting themselves into such a privileged position.

Why, the LDP will ask, should the Liberal Party get sole rights to the word “liberal”, since its claim to be a liberal party is weak and diminishing? (It is not, for example, a member of Liberal International, the world organisation of such parties, but of its conservative rival, the International Democrat Union.) The DLP would make similar claims about the ALP’s failings as a representative of labo(u)r.

Traditionally, Australia’s treatment of political parties and candidates has been very egalitarian. The requirements for nomination and for party registration are not onerous, and once nominated or registered everyone is treated equally, at least in theory. Ballot paper positions are allocated by random draw, and no special indication is given as to whether a party is a major national organisation or a hastily contrived front group.

It’s not the same everywhere. In many countries, ballot access is much more tightly controlled and considerable favouritism is shown to established parties. The downside is that challenging the incumbents can be much more difficult, but it must be admitted that there is a considerable upside in reducing the sources of voter confusion.

Before we turn our back on an Australian tradition, however, it’s worth looking again at the source of last year’s problems. Why do our ballot papers get so complex? Why is it in someone’s interest to manufacture a host of fly-by-night Senate tickets that make the voter’s task so difficult?

The answer isn’t hard to find. Our system of automatic ticket preferencing means that very small parcels of votes can be accumulated in such a way as to eventually deliver a seat to an unknown candidate. If preferences were confined to those that the voter actually expressed, it would be impossible for a group with only a couple of percent support to get elected, so most such groups would not bother standing.

In other words, although LDP senator-elect David Leyonhjelm had almost 10% of the primary vote, his case is more similar than it might seem to that of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, which elected a senator in Victoria with just 0.5%.

In both cases, automatic ticket preferencing is the problem. Turning Senate elections into a lottery induces more and more people to try their luck. Without those extra candidates, the ballot paper would have been comprehensible, voters would have been able to find what they were looking for, and the similarity of names would not have been a problem.

Leyonhjelm himself would probably still have stood — the LDP, unlike most of those on the ballot paper, is a “real” political party — but he would no longer have had such a powerful ally in voter confusion.

All the signs are that the government plans to do something to reform the system of automatic ticket preferencing in any case, although it’s not clear that it will go all the way (as in my view it should) and give full power to the voters, as with the method NSW uses for its Legislative Council. If it does, it’s likely to find the problem of similar names becomes much less of an issue.

That doesn’t mean it won’t still try to do over the LDP and the DLP. But it would lack the current justification for doing so.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey