On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Small parties and the Australian Senate

image - Australian-Senate

The 2013 federal elections in Australia were notable not only for a change of government, but for a significant change in the composition of the Australian Senate. Voters were less supportive of the major political parties than at any point in the nation’s history.

This outcome triggered extensive debate in the community, and in particular it greatly excited the psephosphere.

Much of the debate was about whether – and if so, on what basis? – micro parties or individual candidates with small starting first preference votes should be permitted to win seats. Obviously they can only do so after collecting preferences from voters who initially supported other candidates.

To people who understand the preferential voting system – known as the single transferable vote or STV – the answer is “of course”. Anyone should be able to win a seat, if that’s what the voters say in their preferences.

But the problem is that in 1984 our Parliament legislated to divide the ballot papers into two sections (known colloquially now as ‘above’ and ‘below’ the ‘line’). The new rules allowed for the primary option to vote fora single ‘group voting ticket’ submitted by parties. These tickets have the effect of automatically filling out the whole ballot paper with preferences in the order directed by the party.

(Apparently, the notion of pre-submitted ticket votes was an invention of Lewis Carroll, the 19th century part-time psephologist better known as the author of Alice and Wonderland.)

Group voting tickets were introduced when only the major parties and a third party (the Australian Democrats) were expected to win any seats. But with the modern fragmentation of the electorate’s support for parties, GVTs make election results follow very unnatural patterns of preference flows.

The total vote for the two major parties is now regularly below 80% of the vote.

And because the above-the-line voting option is far easier for voters, over 90% of all ballots cast normally being GVT ballots.

As a result, three of the non-major party senators elected in 2013 did so from low starting votes and were elected entirely due to GVT-driven preference flows.

Many observers say that these new senators have gone on to perform with integrity and given us a more diverse parliament, not beholden to the government of the day. Not everyone agrees. And even supporters of the new senators have to admit that they didn’t all get there through clear voter endorsement.

Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters examines any problems with the electoral system between every election. This cycle their inquiry, held during 2014, attracted over 200 written submissions.

One of them was my own Submission 181. I’m afraid it’s a lengthy read, covering the growing role of the High Court in applying the Australian Constitution to the current electoral laws, the virtues of various voting systems and the (limited) extent to which our current electoral systems achieves representation of the people. There were many other interesting submissions, and all but a very few are shorter!

After a lengthy inquiry, in May 2014 the Committee recommended that the ballot paper design be changed by both allowing optional referencing ‘below the line’, and by abolishing the system of automatic group voting tickets ‘above the line’.

The recommendation was agreed to by both major parties and the Greens, and was endorsed by the Senate’s most electorally legitimate cross bench Senator, Nick Xenophon (who wins around 20% of the vote in South Australia and whose ticket has been a victim, not a beneficiary, of the GVT system).

Alas, the Government and Parliament have been tardy, to say the least, in introducing amending legislation to implement the Committee’s recommendation.

The Labor Party is divided on the issue, with reformers supporting the multi-partisan recommendation, but various senators clearly preferring that the current system, which assists their own personal re-election prospects, remains in place.

The powerful Senate cross-bench – other than Senator Xenophon – has stridently opposed the Committee’s recommendation, also with obvious future self-interest in re-election in mind.

The Coalition Government is widely reported to be unwilling to damage relations with the cross-bench by proceeding with the proposed reforms.

There is considerable speculation that the major parties plan to introduce and pass the reforms abruptly during 2016, as close to the next election has possible, to minimise wider retribution from the cross bench. But the Electoral Commission has indicated alarm at being given only limited time to revise its vote counting practices in time for the conduct of the election.

The current rules – especially the existence of the GVT system – are a clear distortion of voter choice, and the longer they remain, the more perverse results will occur.

For what it’s worth, my view is that minor party and independent senators are a very welcome element of our democracy, bringing independence and diversity to the legislative process. But individuals should win such seats on the basis of genuine voter preferences, not through a distorted vote counting process.

With the next federal election due in the second half of 2016, the key moment for legislative action may well arrive in May or August 2016.


– October 2015



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This entry was posted on September 10, 2014 by in Australia, Current issues, Single transferable vote (STV), Voting systems.
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