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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey