When the Carbon Tax Repeal bill was defeated in the first vote by the Senate last year the Prime Minister described the Senate as “Situation Normal”. More recently after the University Deregulation Bill was defeated he described the Senate as “Feral”.
With the government looking at making changes to the Senate voting rules we thought it might be time to explore the history of the Senate elections and look at why the Prime Minister has said these two different things.
The voting method has an influence on Senate make-up.
At the very first federal election in March 1901 Senators and Members of the House of Representatives were elected according to the laws of each of the states.
In 1902 a uniform method of electing MP’s and Senators was enacted into law and both houses used the multiple plurality ("first-past-the-post") voting system. Section 9 of the Constitution states that “the Parliament of the Commonwealth may make laws prescribing the method of choosing senators”.
This initial voting legislation allowed the three candidates with the highest number of votes in each state to gain a senate seat. Three out of the seven Senates in the period from 1901 to 1918 were Government majority.
In 1918 the Senate moved to multiple majority-preferential voting. This majoritarian voting system does not provide proportional representation and resulted in very lopsided balance in the Senate.
In the period from 1918 to 1949 a massive eight out of the ten Senates were of Government majority. The situation was particularly highlighted in the period from 1947 to 1949 when the Labor Government held 33 of the 36 Senate seats with an opposition of only 3 Senators.
It was questioned at the time whether such a majority in the Senate could provide an appropriate review of legislation. With such a small opposition bills could pass through the Senate without debate.
After this tumultuous period the Senate voting system was changed for the 1949 election and a single transferrable vote with proportional representation was implemented and has remained this way since. Candidates are now elected to the Parliament in proportion to the number of votes they receive, quotas apply and once a candidate exceeds the quota the extra votes are transferred between candidates. These vote transfers are in the order of the voter’s preferences if they voted below the line or the candidate’s preferences if they voted above the line.
After the 1949 changes the sitting Government has held a majority Senate six times out of 25 Senates and only one of these periods has occurred after 1981.
The balance of power now lies in the hands of independents and smaller parties who receive preference votes. These candidates could not have been elected using the voting systems of the first half of the 20th century.
Government negotiations with cross-bench Senators can be rocky as was highlighted by Paul Keating on 4 November 1992 when he prohibited his treasurer from presenting himself to a Senate committee. He stated in question time “Whether the Treasurer wished to go there or not, I would forbid him going to the Senate to account to this unrepresentative swill over there”.
Is the current voting system working?
Recently there has been a lot of media coverage discussing whether the current Senate voting system is appropriate. In the 2013 election Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiasts Party in Victoria gained a Senate seat with 0.51% of the primary vote. His small number of primary votes was strengthened by complicated preference deals with other small parties.
Many commentators and politicians seem to agree that this kind of result was not intended when we moved to preferential voting in the Senate. But as Lewis and Woods write “To voters, a tussle between the Senate and the government is just seen as part of the democratic process. Australians hate plenty of things about politics, but capricious Senators giving the government a hard time doesn't really rate among them”.
With a more diverse electorate and huge rise in the number of minor parties and independent candidates (110 Senate candidates in NSW in 2013) is it surprising that we have seen a rise in the number of minor party Senators being elected?
Should there be any changes?
Election Analyst Antony Green wrote that at the last federal election in 2013 a record vote for minor parties was achieved and “in the Senate, support for non-major party candidates reached 32.2%, just under one on three of all votes”.
As such, if the voting system is changed we need to ensure that it is to benefit the voters and is not done to best suit the major parties.
It should also be noted that after 65 years of the current Senate voting system many people still don’t understand how preferences are allocated. Perhaps there should be some changes to how we educate and inform voters on preference system operation.
This could include greater transparency about preference deals with these being more widely published.
It could also be that the large number of candidates on the Senate ticket may discourage people from voting below the line. The joint standing committee on electoral matters took this and other concerns into consideration and has recently produced a report with recommendations for changes to the Senate voting method.
Antony Green has calculated the difference that this committee’s recommendations would have made upon the last election. These calculations show that the Coalition would have gained an extra two seats, Labor would have gained two extra seats and the Greens would have lost one seat. The cross-bench would contain only five Senators.
The government is looking for bipartisan support from the Labor party or the Greens to pass any legislation it submits to Parliament to make changes to the Senate Voting rules. Without bipartisan support it is unlikely the crossbench would support any changes.
Situation normal or feral?
The current makeup of the Senate is 23.68% minor party members (well under the 32.2% that voted for minor parties in the last election) and as such you would not always expect agreement between such disparate groups. In any case many of the minor party members have released carefully thought-out reasons for passing or blocking legislation.
Depending on where you sit on the political fence may determine whether you see this Senate as “situation normal” or “feral”. Those who agree with the obstructions that the Senate are imposing on the Government may see the situation as normal. But those who believe that the Government legislation should pass probably believe that the Senate is feral.
Photo attributed to Mark Ehr