View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Changes to Senate voting may be needed but should not be rushed

Ricky Muir, who entered the Senate with 0.51% of the vote in Victoria, delivering his maiden speech in March 2015. Lukas Coch/AAP

While the government boasts about engaging the community on the tax issue, it has avoided public debate as it seeks to muster the numbers for voting changes that would have sweeping implications for the Senate’s future composition.

Yet it is not too much of a stretch to argue that the latter is as important as the former.

In the next week, the government will have to say whether it will bring to parliament a plan that would make it extremely hard for “micro” players to get elected to the Senate.

If it goes ahead the aim would be to get the legislation passed by mid-March – the end of this parliamentary session. That would allow the new voting system to be in place for the election, whether it is a normal one for half the Senate or (less likely) an earlier double dissolution.

This would be an extraordinarily fast passage for such an important measure. But then speed is always possible if interests coincide. Remember last year’s deal between the government and Labor for legislation to shore up defences on detention policy ahead of the High Court’s judgement.

The move on the Senate was born out of the preference “gaming” that has seen candidates with hardly any votes elected to the upper house where, as part of the balance of power, they have huge clout.

Earlier this term, a parliamentary committee recommended changes to Senate voting. But the government bided its time to avoid upsetting the “micro” players on whom its legislation often depends.

Behind the scenes, however, it has been looking for dancing partners. Its preference would be Labor, and Shadow Special Minister of State Gary Gray has been very willing. But ALP senators Penny Wong, Sam Dastyari and Stephen Conroy are opposed, believing Labor would be disadvantaged in the long term by the Senate configurations that would likely result.

So the government has been exploring a waltz with the Greens, who have their own draft bill. There have been meetings this year involving Mathias Cormann, now confirmed in the post of special minister of state, with Greens leader Richard Di Natale and their spokeswoman on electoral matters Lee Rhiannon. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is engaged on the issue.

Both the government and the Greens want to end the present system of group tickets for above-the-line voting – which is used by most people – where voters mark just one box and have no say over how their preferences flow. Instead, voters would number one to six among the groups above the line (in a normal Senate election).

This would prevent tiny parties, often with a handful of voters each, aggregating their support – using the skill of a clever “preference whisperer” – so the candidate of one of them can end up getting elected.

The obvious argument – and it is a compelling one – is that the new system would better represent a voter’s wishes.

But there are serious questions over any attempt to rush such legislation through. There should be much more public discussion about the nature of the Senate and the consequences of change.

The government wants a more compliant Senate. It has been furious when its program has been thwarted.

But what does the public want? Would people prefer an easy ride for legislation, or an upper house that picked some legislation apart and maybe improved it, and rejected certain measures? If a government could more readily get its way in the Senate, there would also be fewer inquiries, which often probe into dark corners and turn up awkward information.

Conversely, a government facing a hostile Senate might well do better with legislation if the balance of power is shared by several small players than held by a single unfriendly one.

Then there is the question of whether a steeper hill would make it almost impossible for any serious new centre party to get a foothold.

Assuming, however, that one judges that preference whispering and its results are out of hand, there is the matter of how best to deal with the problem. Experts including the ABC’s Antony Green argue about the detail of the approach being proposed. And there are some who advocate a different model, suggesting for example one that did not allocate the preferences of candidates who polled under, say, 2% or 4%.

It is only when the government plan is out and the debate joined that the detail will be given proper public attention. But then, if the government pushes its preferred timetable, there will be minimal opportunity for this scrutiny. The Senate inquiry into the bill would be very brief.

If the government hastens the legislation, it might encounter a backlash. People don’t want “gaming”. But nor do they necessarily want fast-tracked changes that are not properly aired. Yes, there was a parliamentary inquiry, but that was a long time ago – the situation is different if change is imminent.

Some voters might take the view that the government is just trying to suppress the little voices, stopping the likes of those pesky senators who prevented a Medicare co-payment and the deregulation of university fees from getting elected in future. It could turn from a debate about the electoral system reflecting the voters’ wishes into one about an attack on the Senate’s watchdog role.

On the other hand, perhaps the government reckons that with the Greens on side and Labor divided, no-one will press the opposing case.

Even so, the many issues – especially but not only technical ones – that are involved add up to a strong case for not rushing this change. If it was so urgent, the government should have been brave earlier.


Gary Gray announced on Tuesday night that he would not re-contest his Western Australian seat of Brand and that he had offered his resignation from shadow cabinet. He currently holds the shadow portfolios of resources, Northern Australia, and special minister of state.