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Making sense of the polls

Proposed Senate electoral reform is essential

The government has announced changes to the Senate electoral system. The group voting ticket has been abandoned, and instead voters will need to number at least six groups above the line. However, there is a savings provision so that voters who just number one box will still have their vote counted; it will exhaust within their chosen party. As a result, the informal rate will not increase; ballot papers that were formal under the current system will still be formal.

The major benefit of the proposed system is that voters will determine which candidates win seats via their own preferences. Under the current system, parties determine the preferences of everyone who votes “1” above the line.

The proposed system will give minor parties which earn about 6% of the vote in a normal half-Senate election a much greater chance to win seats than under the originally proposed fully optional preferential system, where only a single “1” was required. Under that system, most people would not have distributed preferences, benefiting the three established parties.

There were four travesties that occurred at the 2013 election which the proposed system would make extremely unlikely or impossible.

  1. In NSW, Liberal Domocrat David Leyonhjelm was elected through voter confusion with the Liberals. He drew the column on the far left of the enormous ballot paper. Under the proposed reforms, no-hope parties would be less likely to contest elections, meaning the ballot paper would be smaller, and name confusion would be less likely. Leyonhjelm’s seat should have gone to the Greens.

  2. In Victoria, Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party won a seat with just 0.5% of the vote. This seat should have gone to the Liberals.

  3. In SA, Family First’s Bob Day won on 3.8% of the vote, with Labor and Greens preferences giving him the win. This seat should have gone to Nick Xenophon’s No. 2.

  4. In WA, the election was thrown out by the courts because of a handful of missing votes and a critical exclusion that decided who won the final two seats, even though neither party at that exclusion point could win a seat. The election had to be re-run at vast expense. The result was that Palmer United won a seat that should have gone to Labor on the original count.

Those on the left who want the current system kept because the Senate has obstructed the Coalition government’s agenda should note that in three of the four cases above, the undeserving winner was further to the right than the person who deserved to win. Also, in 2010, the DLP’s John Madigan won a seat that should have gone to Labor in Victoria.

Here are tables of the actual Senate, compared with how the Senate would probably look had the proposed system been used at both the 2010 and 2013 elections.

actual Senate.
Senate as proposed.

I have made one change from tables which assumed fully optional preferential voting, as I think Palmer United’s Jacqui Lambie would now defeat the Liberals No. 3 in Tasmania, since there would be far more preferences. Note that both “Others” in SA in the proposed system are from Nick Xenophon, whereas the actual result was one Xenophon and one Bob Day.

Under the proposed system, it is likely that Labor and the Greens combined would have a blocking majority (38 of 76 seats). Some have argued that Labor and the Greens could never win control under the proposed system, and that the Coalition would be more likely to win a majority. Given that the tables reflect an election (2010) that Labor barely won, and another (2013) that they heavily lost, it seems more likely that Labor and the Greens will benefit from the proposed reforms.

Another argument that has been made in favour of the current system is that the Senate should be more diverse. If people want a more diverse Senate, they can actually vote for parties that are not currently established. Until then, the Senate should reflect those parties that consistently poll at least 7%. There is no reason for the total “Others” vote to be represented, as left wing Others, such as the Sex Party and Animal Justice Party, have very little in common with right wing Others, such as Family First and the Christian Democrats.

I am very disappointed in Labor’s opposition to these essential reforms. A progressive party should not oppose reforms that will put preference decisions back in the hands of voters, instead of parties. Despite Labor’s opposition, these reforms will pass the Senate on Coalition and Greens votes.

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