Senate voting reform – Is this needed?

Australian Senate ballot paper

With the Greens set to introduce a bill for Senate voting reform in the August Parliamentary sittings and some commentators suggesting that the introduction of such a bill is a sign of an impending election, CEFA thought it might be time to have a look at the issue of Senate elections.

What is the problem?

The 2013 federal election saw a swing away from the major parties and some politically minded people disliked the fact that a large number of minor party candidates were elected. This seems to have been the incentive for a call for Senate reform before the next federal election.

The election of Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiasts Party in Victoria with 0.51% of first preference votes and Wayne Dropulich from the Australian Sports Party in WA with 0.2% of first preference votes (in the first WA Senate election, as we know he was not elected in the re-run) gave rise to commentary on how these two candidates could be elected on such a small number of first preference votes. The election of David Leyonhjelm has also received criticism for a different reason. His party’s name, the Democratic Liberal Party and his location in box A on the NSW ballot paper is said to have caused voter confusion with 110 candidates on a one metre long ballot paper.

There was also an interesting result in the WA Senate re-run. Labor candidate Joe Bullock was outpolled on below-the-line votes by Labor candidate Louise Pratt, but as he was placed first on the ticket by the Labor party he received the above-the-line votes. This received attention at the time as the will of the people may not have been expressed in the election of Joe Bullock.

Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters

This committee commissioned several inquiries into the conduct of the 2013 Federal Election. The current committee members are:

  • Chair - The Hon Tony Smith MP from the Liberal Party of Australia , Casey VIC
  • Deputy Chair - Hon Alan Griffin MP from the Australian Labor Party , Bruce VIC
  • Senator Carol Brown from the Australian Labor Party , TAS
  • Hon Gary Gray AO, MP from the Australian Labor Party , Brand WA
  • Senator Chris Ketter from the Australian Labor Party , QLD
  • Senator Matthew Canavan from the Nationals , QLD
  • Mr Ian Goodenough MP from the Liberal Party of Australia , Moore WA
  • Senator James McGrath from the Liberal Party of Australia , QLD
  • Mr Tony Pasin MP from the Liberal Party of Australia , Barker SA
  • Senator Lee Rhiannon from the Australian Greens , NSW

What has the committee proposed?

Over 18 months of inquiries the committee produced several reports. In the opening statement of the final report the chair of the committee, Tony Smith MP wrote:

The first report, released in May 2014, focused on the important issues of Senate voting systems and made six strong recommendations aimed at reforming the manipulation and distortion of the Senate voting system. If implemented, these recommendations will hand control of Senate preferences back to the people, and ensure that federal parliament was reflective of the Australian public’s vote.

The recommendations are:

  1. Optional preferential voting above-the-line and partial preferential voting below-the-line
  2. Abolishing group and individual voting tickets
  3. An education campaign to promote the new voting method
  4. Stronger requirements for party registration, including: an increased number of members, a provision for a compliant party constitution and a membership verification process.
  5. All current parties are to meet the new criteria within 12 months
  6. Candidates are required to be a resident of the state in which they are seeking election.

There has been much discussion about whether these recommendations will improve the will of the voters. One aspect that is sometimes overlooked is that 32.2% of voters did not vote for the Coalition or Labor as a first preference. However, are these voters happy with the results from the 2013 election? Does the catch cry of the Democrats willing people to vote independent or minor to “keep the bastards honest” continue?

Election analysts have also taken a look at the committee’s recommendations and made some recommendations of their own.

What does Antony Green propose?

One of the more well-known election analysts, Antony Green, believes that there are so many candidates on the paper that people can’t find who they are looking for and end up voting for someone else.  He states that this is why there is such a high percentage of first preference votes going to minor parties (32.2%).

Antony Green proposes tightening the regulation of parties as many shell parties have cropped up in recent years with the purpose of harvesting preferences to other minor parties. He believes that larger deposits for parties upon registration will help. He also advocates for optional below-the-line preferential voting. He also propose to change the method used to calculate the transfers of votes as optional preferential voting would cause a high number of exhausted votes.

What does Malcolm Mackerras propose?

Once described as “Australia’s leading psephologist”, Malcolm Mackerras has written a defence of the present Australian Senate electoral system. He states that the current system is far more democratic than previous methods used since federation. However, that doesn’t mean that the current system can’t be improved.

Malcolm believes that Section 7 of the Constitution means that the senate ballot paper should be candidate based.

The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State

He is advocating for the removal of the line, the party boxes and the group voting tickets to meet the requirements of the Constitution. He also states that optional preferential voting below-the-line is required. Having to number 110 boxes in NSW was too cumbersome and the result was that only 2.5% of these electors voted below-the-line.

He states that with no line on the ballot paper, the voters should have to number at least six boxes in the order of their preference, with the option of numbering as many as they like.

The Proportional Representation Society

Operating in each State in Australia the PRSA have stated:

We approach electoral systems….from the perspective of voters, and….we support reform that leads to an increased proportion of voters having their votes be effective. To us, in an ideal system there is a high correlation between primary votes cast and candidates elected to parliament, hence our strong support for proportional representation.

This group advocates for the removal of the above-the-line voting as such optional preferential voting from 1-6 below the line becomes so easy. They advocate for an education campaign to inform the public that voting from 1-6 is their preferences for one candidate and not a vote for all six.

They also call for a Robson rotation for the ordering of the candidates on the ballot paper. The rotation of candidates on the paper is not something that the committee has recommended. The reason due to the extra printing and counting costs.

What do the electors want?

CEFA cannot find any studies or surveys that have been undertaken to look at what, if any changes the voters of Australia want. As a CEFA supporter you may like to let us know what you think.

It seems likely that reform will be tabled in parliament soon. CEFA will continue to monitor this Constitutional issue.


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