No justice in rushing senate voting reforms


Few Australians really understand or care about the intricacies of counting Senate votes, making it even more important to get it right. For that reason Senate voting reform rushed through over a three-week parliamentary period and clouded by threats of an early double dissolution election is dangerous.

David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day, Dio Wang and Ricky MuirIt looks like the move is aimed primarily at getting rid of micro-party senators just two years into their six year terms. No amount of rationality can remove that impression.

I understand the rationale behind these reforms. The introduction of optional preferential voting has been a long time coming at the federal level. The states have already seen the merits of this idea.

Unfortunately these reforms apply optional preferential voting to above the line party voting but not to below the line individual candidate voting as previously recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

The reforms have been sold as eliminating those micro-parties which occasionally manage to get themselves elected on a tiny percentage of the primary or first preference vote. This motivation is reasonable when it is pure and uncontaminated by self-interest. Unfortunately that is not the case here.

It is not good enough just to react viscerally to the success of these micro-parties even if they have brought it on themselves by being too successful and too irritating for the established players, and despite the prominence of so-called preference whisperers gaming the system for micro parties by stitching together unlikely preference deals.

There is plenty of self-interest and hypocrisy on the part of supporters of the reforms (Labor has backed out at the last moment adding to the confusion). Preference voting of any sort encourages preference deals. So let's not be too self-righteous about the merits of our system.

Look at the broader democratic context. Successful preference networks among micro-parties have only been possible because the Senate vote share of the established major parties has fallen to such a very low level.

The anti-major party feeling among a significant minority of voters cannot just be condemned as mere populism. Much of it relates to the obvious internal failings of the big parties, which decide more than 90 per cent of our parliamentarians. All of our representatives in safe seats and most of our senators are decided not by voters but by major party pre-selection bodies whose processes are dominated and abused by the controllers of internal party factions.

Justice for voters as an inspiring rallying call for electoral reform looks empty when these considerations are taken into account. Party leaders who rail against backroom preference deals overlook the factional backroom deals that are common within their own parties.

Some commentators are also bemused by preference whisperers stitching together deals between micro-parties standing for very different values. They just don't understand the 'anyone but a major party' motivation that now drives many voters who are just sick of insiders dominating politics. Voting for them is more of a symbolic anti-establishment statement than a carefully considered policy choice.

The performance of the new Senate cross-bench has rewarded this approach. Most of these senators seem to be open to considering issues on a case by case basis. Certainly they are less closed minded and more individualistic than the major party blocs.

Furthermore being elected with a tiny first preference vote should never be confused with being an inappropriate person to cope with the duties of a senator. Many Australians can do as good a job in politics as those drawn from the diminishing pool of big party activists.

The government, the Greens, and Senator Nick Xenophon want to keep the debate about electoral justice as narrow as possible because they are offering some technical improvements.

But they shouldn't be allowed to rush their reforms and certainly the ideas contained in their package must be separated from the idea of a double dissolution election driven by a determination to cut short the terms of sitting micro-party senators.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Senate reform, Nick Xenophon



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Existing comments

A concise take on the issue, John. I didn't like the sound of the proposal from the beginning; you've helped me understand even better why.

Stephen K | 29 February 2016  

John makes some very good points. The proportion of non-major party senators elected last time reflected very closely the proportion of voters who wanted anything but the Lib/Lab option. And although the particular minor/micro party senators elected in each state might be seen as a bit of a lottery, the full hand of such senators who were elected across all states was pretty representative of the wide range of views of those minor/micro parties. In other words, overall, we got a representative senate. John is also correct to focus on the distribution of preferences within the parties. Those preferences also need to be opened up voter control and taken away from the party bosses. The difference between the politics of the 1st and the 2nd candidate in a major party's list can be as great as that between the extremes in the micro parties. Which is why I will continue to vote below the line, and go back and ask for another paper as often as I make a mistake. That way I can allocate my preferences for people rather than machines.

Ginger Meggs | 29 February 2016  

An excellent article that explains the rationale behind the proposed l changes to the Senate voting system. My fear is that if these proposed changes are implemented the make up of the Senate will be such that it will be virtually impossible to make any future change to improve the Senate voting system will be virtually impossible

Denis | 01 March 2016  

Apologies. My previous post was sent prematurely when I hit the wrong key. An excellent article that explains the rationale behind the proposed changes to the Senate voting system. My fear is that, if these proposed changes are implemented, the make-up of the Senate will be such that it will be virtually impossible to make any future change to improve the Senate voting system. The changes will entrench the dominance of the major parties to the disadvantage of minor parties and independents. I believe the Senate voting system should encompass optional preferential voting above and below the line. In addition the system would be further enhanced by the introduction of the Robson Rotation system whereby the position of an individual candidate or a party on the ballot paper is randomly selected (see for an explanation of this system). The Robson Rotation would eliminate the ability of the party powerbrokers to determine the position of candidates within the party group. It would also eliminate the ability of the so called "election wisperers" to game the system. The RR also would even out the effect of the donkey vote across all candidates. Because the order of candidates and groups on the ballot paper changes randomly all candidates would benefit from the effect of the donkey vote but to a far lesser extent than is the case under the current system. However, I do not believe the major parties will be voting for a fairer Senate voting system but a system that benefits themselves to the detriment of all others.

Denis | 01 March 2016  

The two major parties make promises which they immediately break when elected to power. If we change the system will the major parties be held to account? Without accountability we would have seen Abbott (for example) commence eroding Medicare, inroads to towards cutting penalty rates, big cuts to the ABC and no unemployment benefits for 30yr olds & under for 6 months. None of which he put to the public prior to being elected. I for one am wary of this proposal.

Ruth | 01 March 2016  

Although respecting the intellectual integrity and underlying philosophy with which this article is written, it remains that several of the senate cross bench seats are the result of gaming and clerical error. As a life-long Labor voter, I am bitterly disappointed by the current position of the Labor Party which had previously supported the direction of the proposed legislation. It is not surprising that the "preference whisperers" are vehemently opposed to the legislation; their livelihoods depend on maintaining the status quo. As I understand the situation, nothing in the proposed legislation prevents the election of independents but they will need to establish a profile and offer coherent policies to attract votes.

Johno | 01 March 2016  

There's truth to the notion that people are disaffected by the political parties, but alienation is not transformed through prolonging 'preference whispering'. Rather than having several people in the room promise one of their kind, no matter of which principle, to be elected on scant votes, maybe there are better ways. The cynicism of the parties is not answered by continuing similar machiavellian power games, nor is it by rewarding current widespread ignorance of the political process. The way forward, I hope, will be through having more parties in both chambers, not less. New Zealand and Europe point the way.

Adrian Glamorgan | 01 March 2016  

Too often, this debate becomes stuck on the 'injustice' of the way the micro party senators have been elected, losing the focus on the may the major parties list their candidates. Take the WA fiasco, where Joe Bullock was elected ahead of Louise Pratt not because ALP voters preferred the former but because the ALP machine listed him first on its ticket, the result of back took faction deals no less appalling than preference whispering. The result was that the ALP lost an experienced competent senator who was replaced by a mid-Victorian wind bag who, kincidentally, has now decided to spit the dummy and resign mid-term.

Ginger Meggs | 02 March 2016  

"Preference voting of any sort encourages preference deals." Not necessarily, John - only with above-the-line voting as it presently exists. Abolish that and you abolish the problem. So it unsurprising that it's not on the table.

FreddyP | 02 March 2016  

Thank you for your very interesting article which confirms what I believe this so called reform is all about self interest to achieve government control of the Senate. The Senate was set up as a watchdog to ensure there is not dictatorship and to ensure all bills are fair and reasonable. Yes there needs to be some changes in relation to preferential voting but it can only be fair and just if it applies to all candidates not just "groups" as occurs above the line on the voting paper.

Margaret | 02 March 2016  

So now the draft legislation has changed to make below the line voting easier. Is that a victory for the views put forward by John and others? I think it is, and now that it will be easier and less hazardous, we need to encourage people to start researching the individual candidates and voting below the line and thereby control ALL their preferences.

Ginger Meggs | 04 March 2016  

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