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Mar 2, 2016

Mayne: govt powers ahead with Senate voting reform

The Coalition and the Greens have reached a deal on Senate voting reform. And Labor is not happy.


After four hours of hearings in the main committee room yesterday morning, Senate voting reform is powering ahead at breakneck speed, and the government can now ready itself for a potential double dissolution election as early as July after making a deal with the Greens to back the changes.

The various players have all lodged their reports this morning and the big change is that the government, the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon have all recommended a shift to optional preferential voting below the line.

From the top, Recommendation 1 of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) reads:

“The Committee recommends that the Government introduce a system of partial optional preferential voting below the line. It proposes that:

  •  voters should be instructed on the ballot paper to mark a minimum of 12 preferences to vote below the line; and
  •  a related vote savings provision for below the line votes be introduced to ensure that any ballot with at least six boxes numbered in a sequential order (starting at ‘1’) be considered formal.”

The Labor opposition seems as entrenched, political and inflammatory as ever, despite the party’s previous support for Senate voting reform.

The dissenting report, which was clearly driven by Senator Stephen Conroy, includes some over-the-top language, such as this claim:

“If the Liberals and the Greens engaged in this conduct in trade or commerce, they could be prosecuted for cartel behaviour.”

Labor also claims it is “a dishonest farce” to suggest the reforms line up with the unanimous recommendations of the cross-party JSCEM committee.

But when it comes to things like optional preferential voting and the abolition of group voting tickets, it does line up. This is what today’s majority JSCEM report said on the substantive reforms:

“Abolishing Group Voting Tickets is a highly significant reform that will directly address much of the criticism and disenchantment with the Senate voting system arising from the last federal election. The Committee commends the Government for taking bold and decisive action to end the virulent forms of preference harvesting that has resulted in what is known as ‘gaming the system’. This is a powerful change that enfranchises voters.”

This is shaping up as one of the biggest Greens-Labor policy splits in a while. The Greens submission, along with the additional comments appended to the committee report today, spell out a long-held and principled position around the abolition of group voting tickets.

They point out this is a reform that federal Labor promised to introduce as part of its minority government agreement with the Greens in 2010, but never delivered on, despite jointly having control of the Senate.

The ALP didn’t bother to make a submission to the JSCEM and didn’t even send a party official to attend yesterday’s hearings. It seems the elected ALP representatives, especially the major factional leaders, are all-powerful on these matters. The Liberal and National Parties both submitted and sent their federal directors to answer questions yesterday, whereas the ALP’s national secretary George Wright was conspicuously absent.

Labor’s official spokesman on Senate reform, Gary Gray, was also a no-show at the committee, having been rolled by a gaggle of factional heavies led by Conroy and Senator Sam Dastyari.

Why Conroy is boxing on so aggressively when Labor’s credibility has been shredded by Gary Gray is something of a mystery. Presumably it is about getting preference flows from disaffected minor parties at the coming election.

On Monday night, there was only 22 public submissions published on the JSCEM website but this has now ballooned to 107.

There was widespread support for the reforms from submitters who are independent of the affected parties, including the likes of ABC psephologist Antony Green and Professor George Williams.

The opposition came from incumbent crossbenchers and several of the current 40 or so micro-parties that have federal registration.

The Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party put the case against reform quite well in this submission and then its man, Senator Ricky Muir, also produced this 38-page dissenting report today.

However, despite preference whisperer Glenn Druery promising to convene a council of war on Saturday to plan retribution against the supporters of Senate reform, it is hard to see them being able to co-ordinate a gaggle of left and right parties to all run and preference against this left-right coalition supporting reform.


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25 thoughts on “Mayne: govt powers ahead with Senate voting reform

  1. susan winstanley

    Stephen – the long-accepted acronym for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is JSCEM not JSCOM.

    It would appear you are relying on Cormann’s pronunciation “Jayscom” which probably arises from (a) his unfamiliarity with electoral matters (only recently made SMS) and (b) his amusing pronunciation problems generally…

    1. Sophie Benjamin

      Thanks for that, Susan. I’ve amended in the piece. – Sophie, website editor.

  2. Norman Hanscombe

    Perhaps a more rational assessment than usual, but Crikey could still use someone knowledgeable about proportional voting to provide a better explanation for subscribers.

  3. Aethelstan

    Wonderful to see the Greens falling over themselves to give the Coalition a permanent majority in the Senate …

  4. AR

    SusanW – it is a bit of worry that minor matters such as the name or acronym of an important aspect of Parliament is such small spuds for so many, the Kormannator’s pronunciation aside.
    Given the mention in today’s editorial on equal marriage and now his pathetic blathering on this vital reform, Senator Space Cadet has fallen massively in my estimation.
    Which wasn’t much previously.
    The best bit of news – and I have been a furious opponent of full BtL completion since, oohhh.. 1984 – is that the evil Group Party ticket is to be abolished.
    So similar to the Euroid List system, which has entrenched a political class beyond sclerotic, it is almost as if the SussexSt Lubyanka hated the thought of voters choosing, in case they get it wrong.

  5. PhoenixGreen


    Antony Green and Kevin Bonham have rubbished the Coalition majority lie. Modelling has shown that a coalition majority under the reform is no more or less likely than it is currently.

  6. Dog's Breakfast

    This must be one of those pesky irregular verbs that often come up in the english language;

    I do major party preference deals,
    you do preference whispering,
    he’s a cheat!

    As for Senator Conroy’s comments, regardless of previous committee work, it is hard to argue about this being equivalent to cartel behaviour.

    Make a substantive case against him, but try arguing that.

    @Norman, you probably know about proportional voting in the Senate, but what you probably haven’t realised is that in the current system, you effectively have no idea where your vote ends up.

  7. Norman Hanscombe

    Unlike the Crikey Team, Dog’s Breakfast, I not only understand where my vote can ‘end up’ but also know what various systems’ weaknesses are, and how to improve those systems. If you worked out as a kid how the new system developed in 1946 worked before it was ever used, you’re reasonably adept, which is probably why Crikey consistently declines offers to help them.

  8. David Hand

    If these senate voting changes lock in a permanent majority for the Coalition in the Senate, it will be because that’s how voters vote and proof about just how corrupt the current system is.

    But I think you’re wrong. A normal half senate election will deliver 2+ Labor Senators, 3- Coalition Senators, 1+ Greens senators and 2 to 3 independents. The trick for independents now is they will need to get elected Xenephon-style with high primary votes rather than Muir-style with harvested donkey votes.

    And Family First won’t get in again which will be a good thing thing as their constituency is tiny.

  9. Norman Hanscombe

    One of the weaknesses with the systems operating since 1949 David [and the same is true of the Tasmanian Hare Clarke system] is that they didn’t anticipated the potential effects when there were more than two major groups competing.

    Suggestions to make proportional voting systems have been put forward many times since then but whether it was because of self-serving interests, incompetence or both, none have been taken up.
    Why Crikey plays the role it does is best explained by Crikey.
    If these senate voting changes lock in a permanent majority for the Coalition in the Senate, it will be because that’s how voters vote and proof about just how corrupt the current system is.

    But I think you’re wrong. A normal half senate election will deliver 2+ Labor Senators, 3- Coalition Senators, 1+ Greens senators and 2 to 3 independents. The trick for independents now is they will need to get elected Xenephon-style with high primary votes rather than Muir-style with harvested donkey votes.

    And Family First won’t get in again which will be a good thing thing as their constituency is tiny.

  10. AR

    OneHand has written something that is as near to correct & reasonable as he is ever like to achieve.
    Stopped Clock Syndrome.

  11. sparky

    I don’t get that Same Sex Marriage requires a plebiscite while such a fundamental change to elections doesn’t. Actually I do get it, unfortunately.

  12. Norman Hanscombe

    It’s quite simple, sparky, NEITHER of them require a plebiscite, but plebiscites can be used by those wishing to have an excuse either to do or not to do something that involves a politically sensitive issue which will see many voters stirred up, and ready to change their votes.
    Why Crikey fails to explain this I leave to them to rationalise.

  13. susan winstanley

    You are welcome Sophie Website Editor

    Cormann’s JSCOM probably came from Finance Dept geeks apparently required to prepare his response last night, and as we all know, they know nothing about anything

  14. susan winstanley

    well said AR

  15. Bobalot

    A deal done behind closed doors and rushed through the Senate with 1/2 a days scrutiny.

    And the Green’s have the hide to lecture the rest of us about “transparency”.

  16. Norman Hanscombe

    Since we don’t know who you are Bobalot it has to be assumed you really don’t know how Parliaments work. The Legislation wasn’t “rushed through” on the same day it was passed no matter how keen you might be to discover conspiracy theories.

  17. Geoff Powell

    AR-“The best bit of news – and I have been a furious opponent of full BtL completion since, oohhh.. 1984 – is that the evil Group Party ticket is to be abolished.”

    GVTs abolition is a great move; I’d get rid of AtL and the line too. But it was Evatt who carried over full preferential in 1949 from old majority senate system against opposition from Menzies. Both the majors had switched when Whitlam then Hawke tried to introduce OPV.

    Pity they didn’t go for completely optional marking of preferences BtL to minimise informality. We have one vote which will go towards the election of one Senator, perhaps help a second, but will never count for six. Let voters decide how many preferences to record, in the knowledge that later preferences can’t hurt the chances of your 1st choice candidate.

    The only strategic voting possible, given regimented voting down party ordered lists survives, is for more ALP and LNP voters to vote BtL for the third on the ticket. This would have kept Fielding out.

  18. AR

    GeoffP – the Constitution is quite clear, “the Senate shall be treated as a single ballot, with 6 seats to be filled.”
    All the rest of the added complications & fiddling has had a single purpose, as Antony Green said at the 4 hour hearing yesterday, “to herd voters..”.
    Who do the electorate think they are, sovereign citizens in a democracy? Cheek!

  19. Norman Hanscombe

    Geoff Powell, In 1949 Ben Chifley was Labor Leader, and proportional voting was being sponsored by Arthur Caldwell. Doc Evatt wasn’t even in Federal Parliament. Menzies won the 1949 Election but because of the old system having been used in 1946, despite doing well in the Senate voting he was left with a minority in the Senate so he had to call a Double Dissolution in 1951 which he won decisively.
    The “completely optional marking of preferences” you suggest has major flaws, and although modifying amendments could be made to reduce this, so few understand the mathematics involved it wouldn’t be easy to counter the usual scare campaigns arising in these sorts of situations.
    If you want to make serious contributions on proportional voting you need to undertake far more research.
    AR needs similar research if he’s to avoid the trite suggestions he makes.

  20. CML

    It’s still a rort on the part of the dirty dealers.
    Anyone had a look at how Xenophon and most of the Greens got into the Senate in the first place? Mostly with primary votes well below 5%.
    Now they are denying new parties/independents the right to do the same thing…very democratic!
    I will still vote BTL, but now I don’t have to vote for any of the dirty dealers…I suppose that’s progress!!

  21. Derek Condle

    The timing is bothersome , reform if you must but don’t use it as a way of side stepping the fact that the Liberal government came into power on fake election promises and that is why they had a difficult senate, if they had told the people of their actual agenda before the election , they wouldn’t have been elected. I think its pretty piss poor to pull this on us after the last three years we have had to endure. I would be more comfortable to see the reforms after the next election in fact it should be put to a plebiscite letting politicians dick around with voting rules is never a wise thing.

  22. Geoff Powell

    AR – Nearly all the submissions to the JSCEM on Tuesday were cheeky!

    One day the majors will realise their continued attempts “to herd voters…” down their ABCD ticket with AtL boxes is shooting themselves in the derriere. ABCD = Abetz, Bernardi, Conroy, Dastyari.

    By herding supporters to their #1 candidate they leave #3 exposed to premature elimination. It was this, more than the whispering effect, which saw Lambie, Muir, Fielding (and possibly Gair) finally reach quota.


  23. Geoff Powell

    Norman Hanscombe, you are correct, it was Chifley and Caldwell who argued for the continuation of compulsory numbering of when changing from the majority-preferential method to the quota-preferential method for the senate.

    It is incorrect to to claim “completely optional marking of preferences” I suggest has major flaws. That is what applies in the ACT Legislative Assembly and the reality is that only very few voters show a single [1] and while it might be the case those votes exhaust, the vote value will remain with their 1st preference. http://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=f76dc399-77a3-4362-90ee-2fab2bc47777&subId=409716

    I have been making serious contributions towards effective voting for more than 50 years. I am the sole surviving author of the PR Society Manual, was mentored by Drs Ken Grigg and George Howatt and Mr J.F.H. Wright and have been a life member of the Proportional Representation Society for decades. The PRSA website contains a wealth of non-partisan information on best practice electoral reform including this gem on Robson Rotation:

  24. Norman Hanscombe

    I became a close friend of George Howatt in 1974 and he would often joke about two non-Tasmanians knowing more about P.R. and the Hare-Clark systems than did the local experts.
    If you think about it briefly you’’ realise that [and I’ve found NO experts on proportional voting who disagree on this point] with optional voting the early successful candidates need full quotas, but at the end candidates with very few votes can be elected. I’ve discussed amendments to allow a reducing quota which reduces this effect with members of the P.R. Society who have all agreed with me, but felt (correctly) that it would be difficult to introduce such changes when it was so easy for opponents to frighten voters with untrue scare tactics.
    You’ve completely missed the point by referring to the non-relevant aspects of whether “the vote value will remain with their 1st preference.”
    You may “have been making serious contributions towards effective voting for more than 50 years” but as a youngster reading the newspapers I had, for example, become aware by 1949 of how the Senate voting [including Double Dissolution] I also discussed the effect of Rotation with George when he was working on that topic because, as he said, there was no one else in Tasmania who understood its implications.
    You will, I hope, not be disappointed that I’m not overwhelmed by your interesting past achievements.


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