Australia’s Senate voting system lacks transparency and is undemocratic. It has, over recent elections, consistently delivered into the Senate individuals who have a negligible level of electoral support, courtesy of Byzantine preference deals both among minor parties and with the major parties. Unsurprisingly, a cottage industry of tactical preference swapping has sprung up with the aim of turning, literally, a handful of votes into a six-year position in the Senate. The result is that the occasional eccentric independent like Steve Fielding has been replaced by a fractious and wildly diverse crossbench that holds power over government legislation.
The trouble with fixing this flawed system, however, is the risk that it turns the Senate into a major party enclave where the Coalition, Labor and the Greens are the only parties represented, despite nearly one in four voters in 2013 casting their Senate vote for another party on first preference. While the occasional independent with a strong brand — like Nick Xenophon — might emerge from the smaller states, they will likely face a Senate in which they are a lone and uninfluential vote.
In turn, that process will further accelerate the professionalisation of Australian politics, in which climbing the hierarchy of the major parties is the only means of participating in parliamentary politics. This is by no means a good outcome: in recent decades this process has isolated the political class from the electorate and delivered an effective outsourcing of policy and management to a small number of political professionals who rely on staying in parliament for their career and income.
Squeezing out the political amateurs, chancers and the choice of the 20+% of Australians who don’t vote for the major parties might deliver greater stability and a more predictable Senate. But it is doubtful if, over the long term, it will enhance the quality of Australian democracy.
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