Should the Senate voting system be reformed?

By Leith van Onselen

As reported in The AFR today, the Turnbull Government is considering making changes to the Senate voting system to stop micro-parties gaming the preference system to win Senate spots:

On Tuesday, after question time, Mr Turnbull canvassed voting reform directly with Labor, which is split on the issue, while acting Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann has sought talks with the Greens who, along with Nick Xenophon, are supportive of change and eager to vote it through the Senate.

Sources told The Australian Financial Review that the government wants the changes through Parliament before it rises on March 17 for seven weeks…

It is believed the government is inclined towards banning group voting tickets and allowing voters to number Senate candidates one to six either above or below the line. Preferences would exhaust at number six and not be allocated to micro-parties using complex back room deals that see them win seats with just a tiny primary vote.

Not surprisingly, one of the affected parties – Motoring Enthusiast Party senator Ricky Muir – is skeptical of reform. From ABC Radio:

There’s always going to be certain people having different views about it. I myself, not because I necessarily got elected on that system, but I don’t think the system needs to be changed.

In reality the party that I represent and many, many other micro parties that actually stood up for that election would not have been there if they felt like they were represented by the major parties anyway.

So the real question is: are the major parties living up to the expectation of the public or are they letting us down, forcing us to get political?

I have mixed views about this.

On the one hand, the Senate voting system is undoubtedly incredibly complex – so much so that it is difficult to know where one’s preferences flow when voting above the line.

Sure, voting below the line gives one more control – but who wants to fill out 50-odd (sometimes more) boxes?

On the other hand, it is often the minor parties that make the most sense on certain policy matters and I loathe to see parliament become even more oligopolised by the two “dumb and dumber”, “Coke and Pepsi” major parties.

Perhaps the best way for the major parties to lift their vote (and seats) is to lift their respective performance? Gives us a reason to vote for you.

[email protected]

Leith van Onselen

Comments

    • So zero voices beyond the two majors, and even less reason for them to work to attract votes?
      EDIT: And the added bonus of further entrenching the Sydney/ Melbourne hegemony.
      Yep, sounds really great.

      • Abolish the Senate and bring in Mixed Member Proportional Representation. That would combine the smaller voices that might inhabit the Senate, with the House of Reps. ? You already have State bodies ( most have two parts as well!) and Local bodies, there must be some sort of efficiency to be gained by axing one or two of those….

      • I’m all for MMPR in the House of Reps. Not much point in talking about eliminating the Senate given that the minor states would never support it.

      • Now that the States have given up so much of their ability to raise revenue, it’s the State parliaments which are redundant rather than the Senate – the trend of centralising revenue raising in Canberra makes the Senate even more important, otherwise everything just flows straight to the two largest capitals.

        Why would the ruling LNP do anything to help Tasmania/ SA for example, when the total number of seats in those states combined is less than their majority?

  1. I’m with you on not knowing whether to support reform or not Leith. I hate the idea of entrenching the majors even more, but you shouldn’t be required to fill out all the below-the-line options to make your vote valid.

  2. Terror Australis

    Yes.
    The reforms proposed by the Libs and supported by the Greens make good sense.

    I’ve got nothing against minor parties and independents, in fact I think they bring a positive voice to the parliament. But those crossbenchers should be elected based on the express wishes of voters.

    Currently the system of “preference harvesting” is a complete lottery.
    Depending on who gets knocked out of the voting count at what stage, how many residual votes are left over from the major parties etc. it’s almost impossible to predict who will get the final Senate place at most elections.

    Sometimes our “lucky bingo” group voting ticket system turns up decent, honest individuals like (imho) Ricky Muir. But there is nothing to say that next time the system won’t throw up a complete neo-nazi asshole from the Australian Liberty Alliance.

    The proposal is to ask voters to preference number ABOVE the line or number up to 12 BELOW the line. Election guru Antony Green is totally in support.

    http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2015/09/a-minimalist-set-of-changes-for-the-senate.html

  3. I have mixed views about this.

    The minebot is in favour of said reform. That’s not a good recommendation.

    Every microparty/independent reduces the influence of the major parties and increases democracy. If for every Jacqui Lambie we get a Ricky Muir, I think that’s a tolerable tradeoff.

  4. The Greens might be falling for this one. Surely they at times will benefit from small party flows as well. The stopping at 6 is going to dud them.

    There does need to be reform but probably more on the registering party end. It is simply too easy to start a new party and the deposit for running in the Senate should be set at least $5000, not $800.

  5. Anything other than proportional voting for both houses sucks. Multi-party democracy is the only way to break through adversity, corporate stranglehold and/or ingrained political culture by making sure alternatives can actually win at the elections.

    Yes, I used to be a bit more nuanced but finally ended up at the above conclusion for myself.

    Why do Aussies put up with this molding of the system to suit the incumbents (Labor and Liberals alike)?

    • In single member electorates, only 50% +1 votes matter. The rest of the electors may as well have stayed home.

      The Senate six members per state elected by proportional representation system means 85% of voters have their wishes fulfilled.

      A duopoly in politics is more harmful than a commercial duopoly. The latter will eventually be destroyed by change, whereas political duopolies simply adapt, particularly by migrating electoral laws to sectional advantage.

      Join the Proportional Representation Society of Australia: http://www.prsa.org.au/

      • “A duopoly in politics is more harmful than a commercial duopoly.”

        I agree, but duolpoly gives big business the sort of certainty and stability they like. I mean imagine if a party got into power and decided to treat white-collar crime like street crime and started jailing business owners and board members for legal and harmful behaviour? Many business would pack up and leave! No, business needs to know tomorrow’s government will have their backs, and they more or less have that with our duopoly.

      • @RobW – Proportional voting, and the multi-party democracy that flows out of that almost by definition prevents such extreme changes. I find that because a party in a two-party system can “go it alone” changes are much more extreme here.

        Coalition forming means that rough edges are removed before a government can be formed. In the Netherlands it has been instrumental in ensuring extremist idiots like Geert Wilders, while a bit shouty, will never actually be able to exert too much political influence.

        People tend to be weary of the coalition forming process but consider this:

        – coalition forming hard-wires parties for collaboration instead of adversity.
        – coalition forming brings the wheeling and dealing out in the open more than the factions of two-party politics (I consider factions to be hidden political parties you can’t vote for).
        – coalition forming always results in a plan for the term of government. This is transparent and introduces long-term vision into politics.
        – coalition forming provides smaller groups in society to still have a say in politics.

        @David – Thanks. I’ll have a look. 🙂

  6. The “easy” solution is that voters can vote either above or below the line, and their preferences are extinguished when they stop adding numbers.

    So if you cast a “1” vote only that’s perfectly legal but then the preference is exhausted.

    Alternatively you could require a minimum (6 as you suggest?) but then stop whenever you like.

    It would require an electorate sophisticated enough to understand it, and sometimes I wonder.

    • “It would require an electorate sophisticated enough to understand it, and sometimes I wonder.”

      Queenslanders can handle it – does that answer your question?

    • Tassie TomMEMBER

      I’d suggest being able to put some or all above the line and some or all below the line. It’s up to the voter when they run out of preferences and their vote is exhausted.

      I certainly agree that the “preference tickets” should be abolished. For example, in the last election, every person in SA who put the Australian Democrats Party above the line directly elected the Family First candidate – probably not what they were intending to do.

      The only problem with this is that each independent would need a box above the line. However, given that there would be less opportunity for backroom deals and kingmaking, the independents probably wouldn’t bother unless they had a genuine chance.

      I don’t like the concept of having a maximum of 6 votes – you might want (for example) Greens before Labor before Liberal before National, but there might be a few minor parties who you’d like to vote for before any of these. And you might want to put some of the other minor parties rock bottom last.

      • “I don’t like the concept of having a maximum of 6 votes…”

        I don’t think anyone has talked about a maximum limit? Only a minimum one.

      • Tassie TomMEMBER

        @AB – 3rd paragraph, first shaded box:

        “It is believed the government is inclined towards banning group voting tickets and allowing voters to number Senate candidates one to six either above or below the line. Preferences would exhaust at number six and not be allocated to micro-parties using complex back room deals that see them win seats with just a tiny primary vote.”

      • Thanks @TT and shame on me for missing it. I’d always misread it as being a minimum of six. Seems crazy to specify a maximum.

    • That is where they will end up.
      Optional Preferential Voting (either above OR below the line) = no preference harvesting and the Senate composition reflects voter choice.

  7. March 2017 or 17th March 2016?

    Jesus Christ! Why have the media decided to Americanise the date format!

    All our phone bills, power bills, water bills, are in the British format.

    At school in the 1990s, we wrote 20/3/95 at the top of the page.

    Facebook can show the date in British format, you have to change a setting on your account.

    Macrobusiness website can probably change a setting to show the timestamp on articles in the British format.

    • robert2013MEMBER

      I wrote to a bunch of media outlets about this a few years ago and was ignored. It started with “9/11” and then people started saying it on TV all the time, then the newspapers decided to write the date like that at the top. When I last checked all the official academic and public service style guides followed the traditional way of writing the date. In all official correspondence I receive they still do. Come on MB, change the settings in WordPress to show the proper date!

    • This annoys me far more than it should, everytime i hear it used on TV or radio I shout at the TV. Drives me crazy …

  8. What on earth are they doing in Canberra?
    This should have been sorted out as soon as they realised that some idiot could get into the Senate with 2,000 votes.
    So these people can’t even look after their own jobs let alone run the country.
    Feed them to the lions…

  9. The spirit of oligopoly lives deeply in Oz. Laboral don’t want competition, particularly the “born to rule” mentality of Libs. They’re probably still miffed Kroger got bumped for the “roo poo” senator.

  10. I don’t believe a referendum is needed to give senators electoral boundaries within states. At least in Queensland this would be useful to give better regional representation ( e.g. senator for North Qld, senator for West Qld etc )

    This would stop a lot of this nonsense and preserve the dignity of the Senate, the way it is going it will make itself irrelevant.

    • Wow, I thought that you were full of it but it looks like you’re right. Consider that my learning for the day.

      http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/odgers/chap0110

      The Constitution states that senators shall be “directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until the Parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate” (s. 7). No use has been made of the possibility of departing from the principle of each state voting as one electorate.

      http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/~/link.aspx?_id=6690F0DE4F6F45E0A7471C5A907C612D&_z=z

      7. The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until the Parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate.

      • Which is why the Senate is unrepresentative swill. Forty eight thousand Tasmanians elect a Senator like Lambie yet to elect a Senator for Queanbeyan requires 625,000 votes. Not exactly one vote one value.

      • Terror Australis

        The Constitution clearly says the Senate is a “States House”.
        One Vote – One Value is a concept embodied in the House of Reps.

        Different institutions, different concepts.
        Deal with it.

      • Like Paul Keating, I maintain the rage. The Senate has strayed far from the intentions of the Constitutional forefathers in terms of representing the States – giving equal voice to the States. I’d be happy to see it abolished.

      • “I’d be happy to see it abolished.”

        And I’d be happy to finally find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Which is just as likely as the Senate being abolished.

      • Agree. That’s one Bill that definitely won’t pass the Senate. Then again, it’s probably a referendum matter as it involves change to the Constitution…

    • Terror Australis

      And that would wipe out ALL independents and minor parties leaving the Senate completely dominated by the major parties.
      “Gridlock”!

  11. I’m with Antony Green on this, there is a ‘compelling’ case to reform voting procedures for election to the Senate.

    Backroom preference deals have ensured micros lottery-like wins, in no way representative of voter intentions. Of course this would be almost irrelevant had Labor Senators not shamelessly sided with or stirred insurrection amongst the micro and Crossbench newbies circumventing an elected Government’s right to govern – merely for political spectacle and a 30 second sound bite.

    Perhaps optional preferential or no preferential is an answer. The Senate is a mess in any case as it grants vastly inequitable voting merit or weight to individuals from different States – we all know Keating’s famous line. But we’d better reform soon or we’ll be welcoming to the Senate the ego-based Party set to usurp Palmers, Team Xenophon – disrupters and blowers in the wind.

    Where is Stephen Morris!

    • It’s difficult to decide what’s funnier in this comment. The minebot pretending to care about voter intentions or that Stephen Morris would have any truck with a thinly-veiled fascist like him.

    • The only worthwhile change to the Senate is to ban members of political parties, or sponsored by political parties. Independent representatives of the people only.

    • Karl Popper on proportional representation and the rise of minority rule

      “The immediate consequence of proportional representation is that it will tend to increase the number of parties. This, at first glance, may seem desirable: more parties means more choice, more opportunities, less rigidity, more criticism. It also means a greater distribution of influence and of power.

      However, this first impression is totally mistaken. The existence of many parties means, essentially, that a coalition government becomes inevitable. It means difficulties in the formation of any new government, and in keeping a government together for any length of time.

      Minority rule

      While proportional representation is based on the idea that the influence of a party should be proportional to its voting power, a coalition government means, more often than not, that small parties can exercise a disproportionately great—and often decisive—influence, both on the formation of a government and on its resignation, and so on all its decisions. Most important of all, it means the decay of responsibility. For in a coalition government there is reduced responsibility for all the partners in the coalition.”

      Scrap proportional representation and the Senate.

      http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2016/01/karl-popper-democracy

  12. He said it best “when the major parties are not living up to the expectations of the electorate”…

    people are diverting their vote away on purpose, the senate is functioning the way it’s meant to.

    The fact the Libs and the greens are for this, the two parties that most seek to impose tyranny and repress personal freedoms, speaks volumes about this proposal.

    “How dare you disgusting proles dissent against us enlightened thinkers”

    • The fact the Libs and the greens are for this, the two parties that most seek to impose tyranny and repress personal freedoms, speaks volumes about this proposal.

      Uh huh. Which is the only major party who has consistently argued against oppressive and privacy invading laws again ?

      Oh, yeah, the Greens.

  13. Yes but not to exclude preferences and tickets.
    You should only have to enter as many consecutive numbers starting with “1” as you wish. Forcing peolpe to complete a table cloth because they don’t want to vote the generally unknown ticket of some party is abhorent to real democracy. There ought be as few obstacles as possible to voting as you wish.
    Voting below the line should be made much easier.

    • Terror Australis

      Yep. The “table cloth ballot” paper with font so small that voters LITERALLY need a magnifying glass makes a mockery of the democratic process.

      The proposed changes would help address that by forcing some micro-parties to merge and consolidate their platforms.

  14. I’ve always gritted my teeth and voted below the line. Yes, it’s a bit of a drag, but a few minutes of inconvenience every 3 years or so seems like a small price to pay to be able to explicitly tell various politicians to get stuffed, in my own small way.

    I’ve always thought that one should be able to vote below the line for as many candidates as one likes, and if nobody gets the vote then it is discarded. I’d prefer to have my vote be discarded, rather than be allocated to some scumbag who is my 50th preference. This proposal seems like a reasonable compromise.

    • “a few minutes of inconvenience every 3 years or so seems like a small price to pay to be able to explicitly tell various politicians to get stuffed, in my own small way.”

      It’s the age of social media. You don’t need to wait 3 years to tell a pollie to get stuffed. 🙂

  15. Apart from the libertarian exception, I think the collection of oddballs in the Senate have done a great job and exercised great commonsense. On the other hand, the arcane preference rigging is hardly transparent or democratic. On those grounds, I think there needs to be reform. But sincere thanks to the oddballs.

  16. Why not package your ideas up and maths party will turn into a virtual parliament if your model checks out and you can win up to 10k
    http://www.smart.org.au

    What is needed is a tech solution that allows the best outcomes, not what humans with low decision acuity, vested interest and lack of education and understanding need to keep the species from wiping out.

    • What is needed is a tech solution that allows the best outcomes, not what humans with low decision acuity, vested interest and lack of education and understanding need to keep the species from wiping out.

      What if the “tech solution with the best outcome” is culling half the population ?

  17. robert2013MEMBER

    Voting above the line should be abandoned, but people should be sent their local voting list well in advance of polling day so that they can plan their vote. If it takes you an hour or two to figure out how to vote, then so be it. If you’re not prepared to consider the candidates even cursorily once every 3 years you do not deserve to live in a democracy.

  18. And not one person here who has mentioned Arrow’s theorem.. meh. MB is full of non maths miscreants

  19. The only people who should be gaming the preference system are the major parties. How dare those “micro-parties” try to get in on the rort… uh, I mean, take part in democracy.

  20. It starts with an educated and informed polity. The swapping of preferences in deals between parties and candidates prior to the election is, frankly, insulting to those that give a modicum of value to their vote. A lazy and stupid polity deserve corrupted representatives.

    Below the line only.