Sweeping changes to the electoral law to crack down on micro parties “gaming” the system to win Senate seats appear certain after unanimous recommendations from a parliamentary committee.
The radical reforms follow the 2013 election seeing “preference whispering” deals bringing together disparate micro parties aimed at installing crossbenchers with tiny proportions of the vote.
The changes would do away with the current “group” voting tickets, where voters mark just one square “above the line” for a party’s list of Senate candidates but have no say in the subsequent flow of preferences.
This would be replaced by optional preferential voting “above the line”, with voters allocating preferences to as few or as many parties as they wished.
For “below the line” – where electors vote for individuals rather than groups – there would be a partial optional preferential system. Voters would have to mark a minimum number of candidates, equal to the number of vacancies (six in a state in a half-Senate election, 12 in a double dissolution).
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has also proposed tougher rules for registration, that would curb the growth of fly-by-night parties. The number of members required for registering a party would rise from 500 to 1500 and the Electoral Commission would have to verify the members were unique to that party.
The committee’s chairman, Victorian Liberal Tony Smith, said the changes would “restore choice to the voters. They get full power back”.
The deputy chair, Labor’s Alan Griffin, said this would be arguably the biggest change to Senate voting since 1949. He said Labor had pioneered “above the line” voting but it was not operating as had been intended.
In the 2013 election Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiast Party won a Victorian spot with 0.51% of the vote, while Family First’s Bob Day was elected in South Australia with 3.76%. In Western Australia the candidate from the Australian Sports Party, Wayne Dropulich, got a seat on the recount in the September election, but was not elected because the High Court voided the Senate poll in that state and it was rerun.
The fact the recommendations have Coalition, Labor and Greens support would ensure legislation based on them would be guaranteed of passage through the Senate.
Smith said that community had been left “baffled and bewildered” by some of the results from the 2013 election when a problem that had been “festering for some time” came to a head. He said the number of micro parties would increase unless there was change.
Last election saw huge Senate ballot papers due to the plethora of parties with voters having to be given magnifiers to read them.
Griffin said the changes would be potentially confusing to voters so plenty of time was needed for an education campaign.
Political consultant Glenn Druery, dubbed the preference whisperer, has advised on deals for a number of the micro parties at elections.
DLP senator John Madigan, from Victoria, elected on 2.34% of the vote in 2010, lashed out at the recommendations, declaring this was an attempt to “entrench duopoly democracy”.
“I’m always wary when they come out bipartisan on anything. They were happy with their existing rules until they didn’t work their way,” he said. “True democracy lets everybody have a seat at the table – they just want a cartel.”
Senator-elect Bob Day said the major parties were like Coles and Woolworths – they didn’t like the IGA store. The minor parties were “the IGA of Australian politics”.
A quarter of the electorate voted for minor parties, he said. “People will think it unAustralian if it looks like an attempt to sack a whole lot of new crossbenchers before they’ve even taken up their Senate positions.”
He said he would support the abolition of group voting tickets only if the replacement was an exhaustive preferential system for both above the line and below the line voting.
Clive Palmer, leader of the Palmer United Party, said the major parties were getting together to try to eliminate their competition. “Whatever the system is, to try to change it afterwards because you can’t compete to disadvantage others is sour grapes.”