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How do we solve a problem like the Senate?

The unexpected and developing election story is that the balance of power in the Senate will belong to “microparties” most electors had never heard of before. In Victoria, people are asking how Australian…

Senators from microparties such as the Motoring Enthusiasts Party and the Sports Party were elected on Saturday with a very small percentage of the vote. Can we fix this problem? AAP/Lukas Coch

The unexpected and developing election story is that the balance of power in the Senate will belong to “microparties” most electors had never heard of before.

In Victoria, people are asking how Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party candidate Ricky Muir could be elected, even though hardly one in 200 electors voted for the party.

Australia’s preferential system for the Senate has been distorted by “above-the-line” voting, writing 1 in a box above-the-line for our party of choice, with that party having predetermined all the preferences by means of Group Voting Tickets.

In Victoria, the three major parties (Lib/Nat, ALP and Greens) received 83% of the vote. Around 35 small parties got 17%. To get elected, a candidate needed a quota of around 14.3%. The tiniest parties, including the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party (AMEP), exchanged preferences with each other. That put AMEP ahead of minor parties like Palmer United Party and Sex Party, whose preferences then elected AMEP.

There is now a great desire for reform. At least six suggestions are being promoted: the abolition of above-the-line voting and Group Voting Tickets so voters decide their preferences explicitly; introducing optional preferential voting to reduce the difficulty of marking all the squares correctly; allowing optional above-the-line preferential voting so voters decide their preferences, group by group; introducing a threshold, a minimum percentage of first preference votes needed to be eligible to stay in the count; increasing the deposit fee from the existing A$2000; and increasing the minimum number of members a party must have before it can be registered.

The great strength of the Australian Senate system is allowing voters to choose not just which parties they support, but also the individual candidates within those parties. Until 1984, all ballots were in the “below-the-line” format, at first with optional preferential voting, and then since 1934 with full preferential voting - a change that led to high levels of informal voting. Above-the-line voting was introduced in 1983, ostensibly to reduce informal voting.

Abolishing above-the-line voting and the related Group Voting Tickets would remove microparties’ power to do deals with each other. Without Group Voting Tickets, microparties would need to actually hand out how-to-vote cards at polling booths for voters to be able to implement their preference deals. But removing above-the-line voting alone would still leave voters the task of correctly numbering all the squares.

This is why the most considered observers, like ABC psephologist Antony Green, suggest that this option be accompanied by reducing the number of squares the voter needs to mark. That minimum number could be the number of persons to be elected, as in Tasmanian lower house polls and - if voting below-the-line - in Victorian upper house polls.

Above-the-line preferential voting would allow a voter to preference only the parties or groups that they choose, whereas the current system allows voters to preference not only parties, but also the individual candidates within them. Such a system would merely facilitate the preferencing of parties, leaving those wishing to indicate a different order of candidates with a much harder task below-the-line. It is a less equal form of democracy, discouraging scrutiny of the actual people being elected.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon has called for reform to the Senate voting system, as a host of new colleagues prepare to join him in the Senate. AAP/Alan Porritt

Imposing “thresholds” would mean that a party with a lower percentage of first preference votes than an arbitrarily fixed threshold percentage would be excluded from the count. It may be, however, that a party receiving very few first preference votes is nevertheless ultimately the preferred choice of a quota of voters.

We may agree the likely defeat in Victoria of Liberal senator Helen Kroger by the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party is problematic, but that is because the preference order was not marked by successive choices of the voters, but instead was predetermined by the parties they voted number 1 for. However, those voters might have actually wanted to preference the Motoring Enthusiast candidates. Some reform options would still allow that, whereas an arbitrary percentage threshold - at whatever level it is set - might unfairly deny the voters their directly chosen, well-considered preference.

Increasing deposits and increasing the number of members of parties deal with the parties themselves, and may make candidature costlier. This may still let very wealthy groups fund such abuses.

After the election, what chance is there for reform? Many commentators and MPs – Antony Green, independent senator Nick Xenophon and Liberal senator George Brandis - have each spoken recently in favour of some reform.

Microparties have been elected at the expense of better-known parties, so reform is in the interest of all major parties, as well as being an improvement to Australian democracy. And consider this: if the Senate rejects the new government’s legislation and Tony Abbott calls a double dissolution election, we can, without reform of the Senate electoral process, expect even more horse trading from microparties.

With the lower quota of 7.7%, we might even get two microparty senators per state.

Join the conversation

86 Comments sorted by

    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Excellent point again Mr Hendrix.

      Further to the above article, and in view of your proven expertise on The Conversation, can the parliament itself change the voting system or is it protected in the constitution, and as such, would it require a referendum to change?

      An interested bystander.

      Gerard Dean

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    2. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Article 9 of the Constitution:

      "9. The Parliament of the Commonwealth may make laws prescribing the method of choosing senators, but so that the method shall be uniform for all the States. Subject to any such law, the Parliament of each State may make laws prescribing the method of choosing the senators for that State.

      "The Parliament of a State may make laws for determining the times and places of elections of senators for the State."
      http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/~/link.aspx?_id=6690F0DE4F6F45E0A7471C5A907C612D&_z=z

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    3. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      What the Parliament can change is the electoral system - something that has been done several times since the creation of the Senate in 1901. A detailed history can be found at
      http://www.prsa.org.au/history.htm#Commonwealth

      Basically the number of Senators has to be the same in each of the 6 states; and the size of the Senate approximately half of that of the House and Direct Elections of Senators is also provided by the constitution (but not for casual vacancies).

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    4. Bart Brighenti

      Farmer

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Totally agree with Marc, Why is the senate broken now just because some didn't get the outcome they wanted, or the major parties didn't get a free run. I would also like it changed to suit me then.
      I don't want a duopoly now dictating how we vote to benefit them. Minor or micro parties should direct preferences to like minded candidates.
      Im sure you can trust the major parties supposedly better representation would also do the same and not preference just to get elected ..NOT. Are the candidates…

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    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Bart Brighenti

      Madigan lives in the Hepburn/Daylesford area of Victoria.
      Part of his election policy included closing retail business in these towns from Saturday midday and Sunday.

      The towns are totally tourist oriented and rely on the busy weekend trade to exist. If he had his way, businesses would have closed........

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    6. Haydon Dennison

      Student

      In reply to Bart Brighenti

      The senate didn't only become broken now, it became broken as soon as they introduced the above-the-line vote; it's just that this time around, we've seen some particularly unusual results that have provoked people to think about it. No doubt some of the major party senators gained their seat through some bizarre preferences the voters weren't aware of too, but it's a lot less obvious when the party gained a high first preference vote.

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    7. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      No Mr Hendrickx, it is not ordinary people running the country, it is extraordinary people - faceless back room preference fiddlers/ lobbyists (Glenn Druery for example) manipulating the numbers to make sure their minority party gets a seat.

      Absolutely nothing democratic about that.

      I favour optional above the line preferential voting, with the number restricted to the number of senators for the state in which the vote is being cast

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    8. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to John Newton

      How did Bob Carr get elected to senate?... Or his possible replacement Paul Howes?

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    9. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Good article but let's not confuse back-room swapping of preferences that have delivered an extremely right-wing senate (the like of which has never been seen before) with democracy. The people did not choose these people. There is more than a little suspicion around all this. Palmer, life long member of the right who funded the organizing of LNP suddenly starts new party call PUP. People with a right wing agenda running numerous parties at once. Faceless advisers. I fear we've been done over!

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    10. Peter Follett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      Jeff
      The people DID choose these senators (elect).

      However few people informed themselves of what would be the consequences of how they voted. I assume because its all too hard to consider so many options, or perhaps to be concerned about that 'unrepresentative swill'.

      I voted below the line. Yes my poor wife (who voted 'above') had to wait at the door. And yes maybe mine was a donkey (only one number needs to go wrong). But at least I'm satisfied that my vote counted as I intended.

      PF

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    11. Bart Brighenti

      Farmer

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      If that's his worst policy then he is still way in front of the main stream parties who's policies have done more damage to rural Australia and manufacturing.

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    12. Michael Hay

      retired

      In reply to John Newton

      John: If we were to vote for only the number of Senators in our State, could we not dispense with the "Above the Line" section of the polling paper?
      We would then not be beholden to any party who wishes us to vote according to their desires, but would be encouraged to actually number six boxes - just like the Lower House.
      The less power grabbed by the political parties the better and any manner by which the power of the vote is given back to the voter, the better.
      I could also suggest that the political rubbish we have to endure at each election (and for the ensuing 3 years) should be restricted to principles, rather than policies. At least we would have some idea of which direction we are being taken and it might even grant to the members of parliament a way to express their own thoughts on the topic of the time. Whacko ! get rid of the fixed part line and gain a democratic system.

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    13. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Bart Brighenti

      The Senate isn't broken because major didn't get a free run. And I also don't support any dictating how our preferences go. The preferences, just like the first preference, should be the choice of the voter,

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    14. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      They are appointed - appointed by the political party of the vacancy they fill and rubber stamped by the Parliament.

      This is as a result of an amendment to the Constitution that we voted for in 1977. - the Constitution Alteration (Senate Casual Vacancies) Bill 1977

      The story of this amendment is discussed at
      http://www.prsa.org.au/history.htm#Commonwealth
      Section 3

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    15. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      We'll have to see what the new Senate is actually like, but its giving control of preferences to parties rather than voters that is the root of the problem.

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  1. Haydon Dennison

    Student

    The article does well in addressing each of the suggested reforms. I think it's clear that increasing the deposit fee and/or increasing the number of members required for parties doesn't actually address the problem - those 'solutions' serve to make it harder for minor parties to run for election, which runs counter to the idea that anyone who wishes to represent their constituency in parliament can do so, whilst still allowing the same scenario as we saw this election to occur when a party can scrounge…

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  2. Andrew Nichols

    Digital Drudge

    The apparent or perceived necessity for reform does not excuse the language and disrespect used to describe and refer to elected members of parliament.

    They have been elected to the senate, as did the successful major and minor candidates.

    All this screeching about reform, after the election, shows poor form in an elected official.

    Where was all the journalistic scrutiny on these "micro-parties" before the election, when it may have benefited the electorate some?

    The senate was barely mentioned across mainstream media. This amounts to journalistic negligence.

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    1. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Andrew Nichols

      I absolutely agree that there was almost no journalistic scrutiny of the micro-parties before the election. This was indeed journalistic negligence, as you rightly say. I should say that the issue was raised by several journalists - including here on the Conversation - before the election.

      I have no problems at all with the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party being elected if they have the support - after preferences - of the voters. In the Senate system, we elect senators by quota - and a quota for election on Saturday was 14.3%. If the Motoring Enthusiasts were really the preferred choice of that proportion of voters, they deserve election.

      However I don't believe that preferences decided by the parties, rather than decided by the voters themselves amounts to a genuine preferred choice

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    2. Peter Follett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Morey

      Stephen

      Thanks you useful article.

      With some sense of irony, I am satisfied that the result of the election was exactly what the major parties wanted. The Coalition, Labor and The Greens all campaigned to we voters that we should not vote for their opposition. Clearly, in the Senate, many people didn't.

      The majors have made their bed. They might want to look back to their conduct in government and in opposition for some of the reasons for such an outcome.

      PF

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  3. Peak Oil Poet

    logged in via Facebook

    The voting systems used for the Senate (ditto states that use similar systems) are primarily to ensure the electoral bureaucracy is maintained.

    I doubt 1 in 1000 people could explain how the system works so how can that possibly be in the interests of voters?

    The system should be scrapped along with the Electoral Commission staff required to keep it alive - I would suggest the total cost to the Aus public runs into the tens of millions per year for a handful of staff to run the computer programs that are used only once every 4 years.

    Such staff are on very very high incomes and yet do little else but run these counting systems that only a computer can carry out.

    Democracies all over the world run successful elections with far less sophistication and far less cost and fairer end results.

    Who really benefits from these voting systems?

    It's not the tax payer.

    pop

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    1. Andrew Nichols

      Digital Drudge

      In reply to Peak Oil Poet

      "I doubt 1 in 1000 people could explain how the system works so how can that possibly be in the interests of voters?"

      ...and whose is responsible for that?

      Is it the electorate, for not bothering to learn the system under which they are compelled or coerced to take part?

      Is it the education system, which fails to adequately teach the same?

      Is the system broken because the electorate aren't educated about how it works, or because they aren't informed about its players.

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    2. Peak Oil Poet

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Andrew Nichols

      So, the problem is that those 999 people are ignorant (and lazy) and should spend the 10 or 20 hours it takes to really understand how the vote counting system works.

      Right. Got it.

      You don't run one of those counting programs do you?

      pop

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    3. Peak Oil Poet

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Facts?

      You have some?

      Like start with 1 - you know how the distribution of preferences works right?

      pop

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    4. Andrew Nichols

      Digital Drudge

      In reply to Peak Oil Poet

      Dear POP,

      I never said anyone was lazy, but by your own statement, if but 1 in 1000 can explain the system, then the other 999 people are indeed ignorant.

      By definition.

      What you ignored was that I was asking who or what is responsible for the ignorance of the electorate.

      Political education is not compulsory at school.

      Campaigning politicians and parties have not, for the most part, taken it upon themselves to educate the electorate.

      The mainstream media has largely ignored the…

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    5. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Peak Oil Poet

      The whole community and the voters as a whole definitely benefit from a Senate that genuinely represents the diversity of opinions across the community.

      The new Senate will have representation from a range of groups that have received genuine popular support - not just Liberal, Labor, National and Green but also Xenophon, Palmer United Party and others.

      The problem is that the very small parties have been elected because of behind the scenes preferential deals. But, as I said in the article, if it was really the case that the voters for all what we are terming the micro parties really intended to preference the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party, then they should be elected.

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    6. Meg Thornton

      Dilletante

      In reply to Peak Oil Poet

      I could explain the Australian preferential voting system to you if you like. (I should point out - I'm the only one in a household of four who *didn't* involve themselves in working for the AEC at the past election). I took the time to educate myself about our voting systems, and the way that preferences work. This is also why I'm one of those annoying voters who voted below the line on the senate ballot paper.

      I also have nothing but respect for the Australian Electoral Commission and the…

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    7. Peak Oil Poet

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Meg Thornton

      I could explain it also.

      You respect the AEC seems to be somewhat biased as you either have worked for them in the past or are involved with people who regularly do.

      With all your expertise then can you tell me what the cost of the last (or any) election per elector was?

      Can you tell me where that money actually goes?

      Can you tell me where all the money for the new AEC data systems has gone and where is that new system (and how come it does not handle simple things like your name in your…

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    8. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Meg Thornton

      There is no question of suggesting that the AEC has administered this election in anything but exemplary fashion. The problem is with the law and the above-the-line voting.

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  4. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    The current senate results are so ridiculous, we must be a laughing stock in the democratic world. I thought John Madigan getting only 2% of the vote was bad enough. Now it's suggested this new guy got even less than that.

    I am all in favour of independents, but this is just so idiotic in the 21st century.

    Any way perhaps the LNP will get fed up and call a double dissoultion anyway.

    Any odds?

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    1. James Walker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      The "problem" is that voters are disgusted with the major parties - including the Greens.
      The microparty candidates were elected by voters who made a protest vote: *which* candidates got in was secondary to excluding the current crop of idiots.

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    2. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Stephen Lehocz

      As at today (Fri 13th) the AEC website shows that 23.51% of Australians didn't vote for Labor, Liberal, National or Green in the Senate

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  5. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Very interesting!

    Applaud the Greens, who represent less than 10% of Australians, control the senate and strong arm a naive prime minister into introducing wasteful environmental programs.

    Pompously call for senate reform when a few conservative characters who openly love their Australian built V8 Commodores or the Australian lifestyle are elected.

    Remember, Americans THINK they live in the best country in the world, Australians KNOW they do.

    The electoral system ain't broke, so don't fix it.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Haydon Dennison

      Student

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      The electorate system is absolutely broken - any system encouraging people to have less of a say in their country's democratic governance is broken, and by making one type of vote easier to make than another type of vote, the current senate voting system fails to hold up to any scrutiny.

      The issue is not the fact that Ricky Muir won a seat. The issue is not that minor parties win seats - in fact, one of the few flaws with the much better House of Reps voting system is that it doesn't more closely approximate the voting preferences of the public (primarily due to single-member electorates). The issue with what has occurred after this senate election is that people are getting elected not because people preferred them in ahead of the competition, but because people are lured into complacent and uninformed voting by a flawed system.

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    2. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      I don't often agree with Gerard - and I will disagree with his caustic comments about the Greens - but I will agree with his views here about parliamentary representation.

      Isn't it amazing how our main parties - cheered on by sections of the media - continue with their born to rule mentality. Far from being concerned about a few minor parties getting elected because of strange anomalies in the electoral system, I am extremely happy about it. More power to the people I say!

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    3. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      You're missing the basic point Mike and Gerard. What has happened is the exact opposite of 'power to the people'! People chose the Greens, even if it was only 10%. Around 1,000 people in total chose some of these new senators. I'm not commenting here on their position, it is about democracy. I don't know how to express this any clearer. The electorate did not want these people in government. At least around 10% actual want the Greens. This is why it is a problem and our system of government is broken. I find your comments frustrating.

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    4. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      No Jeff, I am not missing the point at all. And rather than be 'frustrated, how about you think about this for a minute.

      If the electorate did not 'want these people in government', then they should have acted like informed voters and not voted for them, for vote for them they most certainly did. There are no 'secret' preference deals, all parties preference deals are transparent, and if you don't like the way your first choice party is directing its preferences then you are fully entitled to…

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    5. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      With all respect Mike, the elephant in the room is, "I would like to bet that a very large proportion of people who voted Green or Independent or PUP etc did so purely because they wanted someone, anyone other than the two major parties." This is an unfounded assumption which is highly unlikely. Would a Green supporter want any of these parties? As George William notes, "I think we should be concerned with people with very few votes who are elected. That's because those are people who have very large…

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    6. Stuart Johnson

      Mathematics Lecturer

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      Jeff, I'm a Greens member. I spent all day Saturday handing out how to votes for them. I want Greens to be elected. I can see reasons for improving the voting system, however, I don't see that there is the sort of anti-Green bias you are describing. In Tas, WA, SA, Vic it looks like Greens senators elected as a reasonable outcome. They are nowhere near getting a second one in. In the ACT Greens are close but both majors get a quota so preferences are irrelevant. In QLD, 2 each for ALP & LIB are easily…

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    7. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      "....This is an unfounded assumption which is highly unlikely....."

      No Jeff. My point was neither an assumption nor was it unlikely. There is no doubt that quite a lot of people voted for one of the minor parties - including the Greens - for the sole reason that they did not want to vote for one of the major parties. It is called a 'protest vote' and it happens at every election.

      So to use your own words, despite what you say my basic point remains. If people don't want these minor parties to be elected, then they should stop being ignorant and start becoming informed voters and actually voting for the parties they want. Because - and this is the hallmark of our democracy - you cannot get elected unless people vote for you. And by not being informed and giving away their preferences, people voted for these minor parties.

      And that is a fact that no amount of complaints about 'swindles' will change.

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    8. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Actually many people have been calling for reform of the Senate since above-the-line voting was introduced.

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  6. Peter Evans

    Retired

    Certainly having Senators with a very narrow range of policies looks strange and especially so when some have a very narrow range of interests but not sure this means the system is broken. The real concern seems to be that the two major political groups are having their influence reduced. It might actually be very beneficial, as it has been in the House, for the government to justify its policies to parliament rather than push them through after a private debate within the governing party. We the voters might see some issues emerge that would otherwise be hidden.

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    1. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Peter Evans

      The fear is that this was all a set up! One of the major parties, the Liberals, have secured what will be a very right-wing senate. It may be the case far from the two major parties having reduced influence but that one of the parties has secured review free legislative power. I will put my bottom dollar that all that emerges from this senate is a further shift of political debate to the right.

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    2. Stephen Derrick

      PhD Candidate, Moansh University

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      That sounds like a conspiracy theory to me! I don't think you are right at all and I will bet my bottom dollar against you on that. The likelihood is that it will be very messy and with various Senators being bought off with special funding and deals. While I don't like that, it is not a new feature of our political landscape. Also, you are quite wrong when you say that "the electorate did not want these people in government" Some people clearly did. That is the system and that is democracy!

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    3. Jeff Payne

      PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

      In reply to Stephen Derrick

      To be sold a PUP means to be swindled. It means, as you would know, to be sold something worthless that you thought was of value. We have been sold a PUP! Clive Palmer is an absolute insider of the lib/nat., movement. Remember his famous 'Greens are sponsored by the CIA' comment which he later admitted was a political deception. Clive is an extremely intelligent player who is continuously underestimated. Further, Wayne Dropulich of the Australian Sports Party works for Gena Rhinehart. We may also note that in this swap deal no left leaning parties happened to slip into the senate. This is not a conspiracy theory, these are observations about reality! Only time will tell. Will it be a mess or a smooth delivery of right wing policy.

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    4. John Cook

      Retired

      In reply to Jeff Payne

      Jeff, if you really believe what you are saying (I think it's arrogant nonsense) then you will support voluntary voting, so that people who don't really care won't have to vote. People who don't know where their preferences are going shouldn't be forced to vote.

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  7. Stephen Lehocz
    Stephen Lehocz is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Interested public.

    This article is misleading, what the election results clearly show, is that 17% of voters do NOT want either the LNP, Labor or the Greens.
    The “above the line” voting and with preferences clearly favors the major parties anyway. Thank God for these minor parties, there is now a way to say “We do NOT want any of these major parties.”

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  8. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I voted below the line because I think voting above the line is lazy, and voting for political parties ultimately produces lazy politicians.

    That is, too many politicians just vote along party lines, and become lazy and worthless politicians living off the taxpayer.

    Most political parties have minimal membership, and operating political parties is not best management practice.

    So instead of listing a person’s political party, just give their name only on the ballot paper.

    This would be a step towards getting rid of political parties out of the senate, and the senate become a true house of review.

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  9. Valerie Kay

    PhD candidate, public health

    It is clearly a serious problem that candidates with less than 1% of primary votes are being elected to the Senate.

    Some comments here (possibly confused, or possibly affiliated with these micro- parties?) are suggesting it's about freedom and voting for the little guy. It's got nothing to do with that.

    Practically no-one voted for them. If they get elected, it's through preference deals.

    Something really needs to be done about it. I favour the system of preferencing at least six candidates ( ie the minimum number that can be elected for each state). That seems like it would work and be simple.

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Valerie Kay

      Not so Valerie. They may not have voted for the little guy, but people definitely voted for someone other than the major parties.

      Forcing preferences is just another means of ensuring the major parties get all the seats. And I will remain opposed to any changes which entrenches their power.

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    2. Haydon Dennison

      Student

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Those people may have voted for minor parties first, but who's to say that they would prefer the Sports Party in over a major party just because their first preference was for a particular minor party? Trying to claim a vote for one minor party is a vote for minor parties in general to be elected is ridiculous - I can't imagine a Liberal Democrats voter wanting the Socialist Equality Party in, for instance.

      "Forcing" preferences is a means of ensuring the voters decide where their votes go, rather…

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  10. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Technical question - would be true that any change to the voting system would have to be passed by a referendum?

    It seems odd that the parliament should be able to change the way it is voted in without reference to the constitution or the people themselves.

    Looking forward to some insight on this.

    Gerard Dean

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  11. John Rutherford

    Worker

    Given the corrupt,inept,disgusting,selfish attitude of both the mainstream parties any form of alternate politician is a welcome relief and a chance to take control away from them It will make them look outside of their idealogical world
    To change anything in the voting system would be near on impossible in this country given the contempt that most people hold politicians in.How would they be informed of the pros and cons of any proposals. you won`t get any balanced logic and reason from the mainstream media.ALL you will get is what they WANT you to think

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  12. Michael Sheehan

    Geographer at Analyst

    Yes, this is a prickly problem. Part of the problem with a preferential voting system is also part of its strength, and that is the importance of being able to vote for who you do NT want to elect, as much as why you DO want to elect.

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  13. Bill Skinner

    Research Professor at University of South Australia

    Get rid of "above the line" voting. Give people an easy way out of thinking about where THEY want their preferences to go, and the will take it.

    Question: was a vote still counted this time if a voter, for either House, put 1 against their first choice and the highest number against everyone else?

    As I understand it, the rule is that the "voter's intention" must be clear for the vote to count, i.e. "I have only one preferred candidate and I do not wish it to be counted for anyone else."

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  14. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    There is no reason why we can't have optional preference voting above the line with the option of diverting below the line if they are not happy with the order of candidates in a group. For example, a voter might allocate her first three preferences above the line then allocate her next three preference below the before going back above the line to allocate her 7th preference. (There is also no reason why this voter could not allocate a preference to both the group and the individual. In this case the preferences allocated to the rest of the group will depend on the preference allocated above the line.)

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  15. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    Optional preferencing is worth fighting for. There are too many votes declared informal when it is clear what the voter intended.

    After the 2010 election I did an Larvartus Prodeo guest post on reducing the informal vote. (See http://larvatusprodeo.net/archives/2010/09/reducing-the-informal-vote-guest-post-by-john-davidson/) The statistical analysis on which the post was based suggest that informal votes for the house of reps were higher in electorates with higher numbers of candidates, a higher…

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  16. Stephen Derrick

    PhD Candidate, Moansh University

    I am bemused by commentators’ increasing references to how the Senate outcome has somehow “been distorted” and how the balance of power in the Senate will be held by people that “most electors have never heard of before”. I argue that such commentators represent a view that is inimical to the interests of democracy because they link the right to represent the electorate in Parliament to those who hold positions of power and privilege in our society.
    At least this commentator acknowledges that some…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Stephen Derrick

      Merit in what you say, and there is no issue I imagine with diversity and balance.

      I think that the real issue is that a person with 1% or 2% of the Senate vote can be elected. I know preferences are part of the deal, and that "that's the way it is" - but it does seem an anomaly in the "system". Perhaps the Senate should be first past the post only?

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    2. Stephen Derrick

      PhD Candidate, Moansh University

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I acknowledge it is a difficult issue. We need to ensure that if we decide to change the system, that we improve it and not simply entrench the positions of those with power and influence. Instituting a first past the post system would probably do just that. I think much larger changes are required than to just the Senate voting. Fixed term elections to stop manipulation. Party and candidate policies to be announced at least 3 months (?) in advance of the election date and lodged with the AEC so we can all see them. What this means for the Senate candidates is that they would have to actually write down and publish what they stand for in advance. In addition, it would not be unreasonable to argue that any parties or candidates must have been registered with the AEC for at least 12 months in advance of any election. We might also think about a minimum membership base too, although that is highly problematic.

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  17. Doug Fraser

    policy analyst at UNSW

    It's important that we keep the two issues separate.

    On the one hand, it's probably healthy for democracy to have pop-up parties. There are many quite substantial interest groups within our broader society – many of them highly intelligent, well-informed, responsible on political issues and more than capable of contributing constructively to a diverse Parliament – who quite reasonably consider themselves to have been overlooked, taken for granted or treated with contempt by the major parties…

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  18. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    How do we solve a problem like the Senate? Elect the Senate from a single national ballot paper ie eliminate State-based Senators.

    The fact that all voters will have voted on the same set of Senators then means that the Senate should be the house of government, with PM and Ministers selected from Senators.

    In turn, this means House of Reps will become the house of review, with each Representative responsible for looking after the interests of his/her electorate instead of voting just along Party lines against the interests of their own electorates.

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  19. George Michaelson

    Person

    when a notional thousand votes have to be taken from senator 'A' who is on one.point-something quotas, and so has excess, to recouch on their second prefs, how are these thousand selected, from all the preference vote choices? If they take the party ticket choices before individuals, there is a compelling simplicity but surely the sub-selection has to be random to be equitable?

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    1. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to George Michaelson

      They are not selected - all ballots are included but they are weighted to reflect the number of votes above quota.

      I vote for Antony Green - he's a clever chap (I hope my preferences don't end up with that climate-'sceptic' party).

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    2. George Michaelson

      Person

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      phew! -I think the suggestions for a minimum primary vote threshold feel to me like the least painful choice. optional-preference systems have aspects which mean you become a non-player in the selection outcome beyond your preference option.

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    3. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to George Michaelson

      The problem with thresholds is that they were designed for party list systems as apply in Europe. Ours is not party list.

      I think it would be undemocratic to refuse the election of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party if they had genuinely been the preferred choice (after preferences) of the 14.3% of voters that make up a quota.

      But the preferences were not decided by the voters, but by the parties.

      Optional preferential works in Tasmania and the ACT and we all still have the choice of numbering all the way to the bottom of the ballot.

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    4. Andrew Nichols

      Digital Drudge

      In reply to Stephen Morey

      To be fair to the system though, those voters chose to let the parties decide their preferences.

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    5. George Michaelson

      Person

      In reply to Andrew Nichols

      and I am led to believe the overwhelming majority go above the line. I think that anyone who votes in the senate needs to understand that if you give somebody else a decision to assign your 23rd preference it can have consequences you didn't understand. Voting below the line, you have some conscious involvement in a moment of "ok, at this point in the process I really am saying a boot/root/and-scoot candidate is most likely to represent my desires". I chose to vote protest and put the HEMP and left candidates high in my below-the-line, but I consciously wound up back on mainstream parties by about the 10th position, and a very large list of people were down the bottom.
      At least one suggestion I've seen implies that if you terminated a choice of voting on the bottom, it might be fairer than having to catalogue your hatreds.

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    6. Stuart Johnson

      Mathematics Lecturer

      In reply to George Michaelson

      I don't think votes exhausting is a good idea, unless in a situation where you really don't know anything at all about the remaining candidates. For example if we went to optional preferential voting I would still number all up to the last box. I would quite happily put a preference next to Family First, even though I don't like them at all and don't want to see them elected. The reason is that there are others (e.g. One Nation) that I like even less. If my vote for FF was to ever actually count…

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  20. John Cook

    Retired

    As in another Conversation about the Senate vote, a lot of people assume there is a problem because something happened which they don't like. What has happened is because of preference deals, something which ALL parties participate in (even the Greens!).
    The only reforms needed are those that give voters the power to decide their own preferences, and that means abolishing above the line voting, and having optional preferential voting.
    A second reform to further democratise the system would be to make voting voluntary.

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  21. Stuart Johnson

    Mathematics Lecturer

    I disagree with the idea that someone being elected on a small primary vote indicates that there is a problem. Taking Victoria as an example, a huge number of people voted for small parties. If these people really did strongly prefer someone other than the majors and larger other parties then it is right that someone from a micro-party should be elected. Given that the micro-vote is largely split between religious conservatives and libertarian types who strongly disagree with each other, then it's…

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    1. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to Stuart Johnson

      I agree that there is no problem with someone being elected on a small primary vote - which is why I'm opposing the threshold suggestion. If all the people who's votes add up to giving a quota to the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts really wanted that, then of course they should be elected.

      You have identified the problem that the so called 'micro parties' - I'm not sure we have a better term - don't all have common views and yet they exchanged preferences in ways their supporters didn't know.

      That's why number of preferences by the voters themselves is crucial.

      Below the line with an optional preferential system is the best solution, gives the voters choice of party and the candidates within that party

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    2. John Cook

      Retired

      In reply to Stephen Morey

      Why is the lack of common views a problem of "micro parties"? I checked the preference lists (on the AEC website) before I voted below the line, and some of the other party lists showed what some posting here would regard as "anomalies", when they were simply designed to get the list maker elected; some seemed to partly reflect what their voters might have wanted.
      I made up my own preference list so that I could copy it onto the ballot paper. I accept that most aren't interested enough to do that, but maybe they should be given the option of whether they need to vote at all; should we have voluntary voting?

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  22. John Zigar

    Engineer, researcher

    "The great strength of the Australian Senate system is allowing voters to choose not just which parties they support, but also the individual candidates within those parties".

    And that's the problem. It is party focused and not democratic.

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    1. Stephen Morey

      Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

      In reply to John Zigar

      It should be more individually focussed.

      If I'd had time I would have talked about Robson Rotation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robson_Rotation) and the fact that in Tasmanian Lower House elections there are no how to vote cards.

      So while Labor or Liberal might expect to get 2 or 3 positions in each Lower House district (5 members per district at the moment), which 2 or 3 is decided by the voters, not by the party machines.

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    2. Peter Follett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Morey

      Stephen

      Fully support Robson Rotation.

      I don't have a problem with 'how to vote' cards. A greater concern is the absence of independents' and minor parties' 'how to vote' cards, so that people don't know what preferences will be distributed. Perhaps we could put up a poster or provide a book in each polling centre displaying the Senate preference plans for each party.

      My main concern is with people voting unwittingly above the line, and then being concerned about the outcomes afterwards. Failure to think for oneself is no excuse.

      PF

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  23. John Zigar

    Engineer, researcher

    "The great strength of the Australian Senate system is allowing voters to choose not just which parties they support, but also the individual candidates within those parties".

    And that's the problem. It is party focused and not democratic.

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  24. trevor prowse

    retired farmer

    Reform of the senate voting system should occur before the next election , otherwise the major parties will use the same tactics that has occurred this election. It must be remembered that in the lower house , if one party has a good majority , then people like a lonely green candidate, is really only in parliament for a holiday. Most business is discussed in the party rooms where an individual has a chance of swaying opinion. An independant may have an occasional question , but has little influence. The senate is different , but if there are no changes , false party implants could compete with the present collusion candidates, thus having 2 metre long ballot papers. A nation wide discussion would make sense , with proposals being presented by all sections of the population

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    1. Peter Follett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to trevor prowse

      "Reform of the senate voting system should occur before the next election , otherwise the major parties will use the same tactics that has occurred this election"

      Perhaps that's not necessary Trevor. It may be that in three years we voters will have learned something from this experience and changed our pre-voting behaviour - walking into booths better self-informed.

      PF

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  25. Bill Skinner

    Research Professor at University of South Australia

    Whatever changes might be made, I certainly hope it is not made easier for one of the major parties to have majority in both houses.

    As might be inferred from my previous comment, I find it particularly undemocratic to be forced to place any preference numbers next to other than the candidates I wish considered (below the line), or accept the preferences others (above the line) decide.

    Voting below the line, down as far as you wish (after which no preferences may be allocated), wins my "vote". Same should be applied to the Reps.

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    1. Stuart Johnson

      Mathematics Lecturer

      In reply to Bill Skinner

      Allocating preferences to as many candidates as possible allows you to give the most information about what you think of the candidates. Allocating preferences to candidates you don't like is not the problem that people seem to think it is. Let's say I don't like parties X,Y and Z, but X are less worse than the others, so I preference X before them. i.e. I'm allocated a preference to a party I don't like. If it helps them to win then it can only be at the expense of people I want to win even less…

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  26. Les Wilesmith

    horseman

    Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking article.
    However, with due respect, I consider all of the possibilities put forward for change to the senate voting system, to be minor repairs, to an overall obsolete system.
    It is like trying to fix a machine where one repair leads to a breakdown elsewhere.
    As things stand, major parties attempt to hold a majority in both houses, with minor parties or groups, attempting to gain seats, in order to hold the balance of power, or to push for one…

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