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12 February 2016
By Matt Hrkac

Senate voting reform - let's clear the misinformation

It looks like the system used to elect Senators will be reformed after the government, the Greens and Nick Xenophon have agreed on legislation that has now passed the Senate. Unfortunately, the above linked report in the Guardian is somewhat misleading. The changes are expected to be as follows:

  • Group voting tickets will be done away with, which means that parties will no longer be able to dictate where preferences go for those who choose to vote above the line. Instead, voters will be able to direct their own preferences above the line by numbering at least six boxes, which will be the directions on the Senate ballot paper. A savings provision will exist whereby a vote is still valid if a voter only marks "1" in a single box. A vote will exhaust if none of a voter's preferred choices are successful.
     
  • The legislation also stipulates that an individual must not be a registered officer of more than one political party.
     
  • A Greens amendment, and government agreement, mean that voters will be able to number from 1 to at least 12 below the line; a position that has always been consistent with what the Greens were wanting.
     
  • In an interesting twist, the proposal states that party logos must be included on the ballot papers; likely to alleviate confusion between similarly named parties; for example, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Liberal Party. This change is in line with many other nations around the world which show party logos on the ballot paper.
     
  • The Greens don't want party registration requirements to change or become more stringent, which means under the proposal, if passed, parties will still only need 500 members to register as a party. This is stated to be the Greens' line in the sand.

Despite these changes, voters will still have to direct preferences to other parties and as such, minor parties will still have a voice in the Senate and still have a good chance of being elected. It just means that those same minor parties, such as the Liberal Democratic Party, won't be able to set up front parties to funnel preferences to them. Likewise, single-issue candidates and microparties that attract a negligible amount of the vote won't get elected on preference flows dictated purely by the parties, either.

Ultimately, candidates and microparties parties having to attract a greater share of the vote to get elected means they have more legitimacy and credibility when elected, and legitimacy and credibility is a good thing. Putting voters in control of preferencing and out of control of the parties greatly enhances this legitimacy and credibility too.

Update Feb 13, 2016: Senator Lee Rhiannon's press release, on behalf of The Greens, on the matter of senate voting reform confirms this, in particular, the last point above: The Greens do not want to disadvantage small parties by upping membership requirements, and as such, will not support this.

“A vote Above the Line of 1 – 6 rather than just 1 will ensure more voters are able to indicate their preference for parties and groups including minor parties. We have indicated to the government that our bottom line is that the Greens will not support any changes to party membership that makes it harder for small and emerging parties to obtain registration."

Update Feb 18, 2016: Claims made within the last few days that the Coalition would win an majority of Senate seats in a double dissolution are also completely and utterly false. Election analyst Antony Green has more to say on the matter:

"To elect six Senators at a double dissolution, the Coalition would need to reach 46.2% of the first preference vote. If they poll more than 46.2%, they have a candidate in the race for a seventh seat, but realistically the Coalition would need close to 50% of the first preference vote to elect seven Senators..

But if the Coalition poll less than 46.2% of the vote, it would be impossible for it to elect seven members from a single ticket. For Breen to claim the Coalition will win seven seats in NSW, Queensland and WA is to say the party will poll more than 46.2% of the vote.

How often has  the Coalition done that at Senate elections? Here's the list of first preference Coalition votes above 46.2% since 1990.

Queensland 1996 - 50.3%
Western Australia 1990 - 46.2%
Western Australia 1993 - 50.1%
Western Australia 1996 - 47.5%
Western Australia 2004 - 50.2%
Western Australia 2007 - 47.7%
Western Australia 2010 - 46.4%
South Australia 2004 - 47.5%

The above cases are the only instances in the last quarter century where the Coalition could have won seven seats at a double dissolution, yet Breen and Askey are claiming it will happen in three states in 2016, including NSW and Victoria."

Update Feb 24, 2016: Updated the details of the proposal now that the legislation has been introduced into parliament.

Update Mar 7, 2016: I've been getting a few emails and Facebook messages asking me: "Why would the government support these changes, if they thought the changes wouldn't advantage them?"

My response to this is simple: Malcolm Turnbull is arrogant enough to believe anything will advantage him, even in the face of mounting evidence and a number of factors that strongly indicates that the opposite will be true. You only need to look at how Turnbull waves the double dissolution card around in the face of falling poll numbers.

As for whether the Greens will be advantaged (or disadvantaged): they might, they might not. If they are, it would leave them in a higher chance of holding the balance of power and being in a position to negotiate or block the most atrocious legislation that comes before the Senate, regardless of who is in government.

Numbers indicate, however, that had the proposed changes been in place at the 2013 Federal Election, the Greens would have won a Senate seat in New South Wales while losing one in South Australia. That indicates no net gain or loss for the Greens. In 2016, the Greens vote is likely to increase regardless of Senate voting changes.

About the author:

Matt Hrkac is a writer and photographer based in Geelong. He has particular interests in politics, elections, social movements and the trade union movement.

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