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Change is needed to the Senate voting system

Clive Palmer has been vocal on party reform. AAP/Dan Peled

Amid the fractious political debate that dominates Canberra, there is suddenly a note of bipartisanship. The major parties want to stop the proliferation and success of “micro” parties, and now they’ve got together to take the first step to doing so.

In a parliamentary report just issued there is furious agreement that these mites have become too clever by half and are out of hand. They “game” the system by a complicated harvesting of preferences, which means they can win a Senate seat despite the fact hardly anyone has voted for them.

The DLP’s John Madigan was elected a senator in 2010 with 2.3% of the Victorian vote; the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir, also from Victoria, who is about the hit to the red leather of the upper house and align with Clive Palmer’s PUP, won with a vote of 0.5%.

The committee’s changes would abolish group ticket voting (where you just mark the square for your chosen party and you don’t have to worry about numbering all the other groups on that huge ballot paper). That would be replaced by optional preferential voting “above the line”. “Below the line” (where you vote for individuals) there would be partial optional preferential voting, with the voter marking in sequence at least the number of candidates to be elected.

With the major parties agreed, the change can be made, and there seems little doubt it will be.

Is it democratic?

The “micros” and slightly bigger small parties are screaming that it is not. (The critics don’t include the Greens who are a minor party rather than a tiddler – they want change. But they do include Clive Palmer, even though his PUP is climbing into the minor party class.)

It’s just the big boys protecting themselves, the micros say: Family First’s Bob Day, about to arrive from South Australia (on a vote of 3.8%), likens it to Coles’ and Woolworths’ dislike of IGA. The critics say the big parties were happy enough with the present rules when they worked for them; now that others are using them to advantage, they want them changed.

There is no doubt the (albeit well organised) fluke election of micro parties would be stymied by the changes. ABC electoral analyst Antony Green says the chances of being elected from 0.2% or 0.5% “would be almost wiped out. A minor party would probably need about 5% of the vote to have any chance of winning a seat.”

So it would be harder to start up a little party, even a serious one with prospects of ultimate growth (the number of members required for registration would also be increased from 500 to 1500). Green says the recommended system would have hampered the start of the Greens, and he speculates that if it had been in place Clive Palmer’s party might have had only one senator in the post-July 1 Senate, rather than three.

Green (a supporter of the reform) calculates that if the proposed rules had been operating, the Coalition would hold 35 seats in the incoming Senate not 33, Labor 27 rather than 25, the Greens 9 not 10, and others 5 rather than 8.

While the micros can argue the changes would work against growth and diversity of parties, it’s clear that the present system throws up perverse results. The quirk outcomes produced by preferences have been around a long time, but the systematic “gaming” by micro parties (helped by the likes of “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery), which can produce more victories on the basis of tiny votes, carries serious problems for the democratic system.

The proliferation of both candidates and the deals reduces the extent to which the results actually represent the choices of the voters.

Because of the proportional representation voting system, the modern Senate is rarely controlled by the government of the day. This limits what a government can do but, if it is seen as useful to have a house of review, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, although a lot depends on how responsibly the crossbenchers use their power. It becomes a more dubious proposition, however, if some of those crossbenchers represent not just a small proportion of voters but hardly any voters at all.

There is no perfect democratic model. It’s about striking balances – between having majority government while giving minorities a say, and having a workable system, but not a winner-takes-all one.

The changes being proposed would contribute positively to that balance. Yes, they would tilt the system in favour of the bigger players, but the problem at the moment is that the rules are being used in a way that does now, or would in the future, tilt it too much towards the unrepresentative micros.

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