How people elect parliaments
On 7 September 2013 the enrolled electors in each Australian state and territory voted to elect 40 Senators. State senators were elected for terms to run from 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2017. Territory senators’ terms were to run from the opening of the parliament in November 2013 until the next dissolution of the House of Representatives, due in late 2016.
The voting method used for these elections was the single transferable voting system adopted by legislation in 1948. This is well and good, as STV generates very solid results against key principles of representation.
However, the healthy operation of this otherwise admirable voting system was greatly diminished by legislation enacted in 1984 that created two ballot paper areas. These amendments added to the ordinary part of the ballot paper – in which every candidate is shown by individual name in party columns, usually termed the below-the-line or “BTL” area – a new area on the paper (the above-the-line or “ATL” area) with its GVT mechanism, as explained earlier. Voters are instructed to use only one of the areas; electing to support a group voting ticket overrides any use of the main area of the ballot paper.
A group voting ticket, if selected, effectively constitutes an automatic ballot, fully filled out with preferences for every candidate according to those shown on the selected GVT.
As an alternative to submitting a single GVT, parties may elect to submit 2 or 3 such tickets, and in these cases the votes received for their GVTs are divided equally among the submitted tickets designs.
Overall, the current Senate election system is an odd mix of quite good features and quite bad ones.
Participation in the 2013 Senate elections was a physical turnout of 93.9% of the enrolled voters. By world standards this is very respectable, and is driven both by legislative compulsion and the entrenched habits of Australian voters. However, it is noteworthy that this statistic is creeping downwards in recent elections.
Around 2.8% of enrolled voters voted nominally but not formally. Some of these voters were submitting blank ballots, while the remainder had their votes invalidated for some technical defect despite their intention to participate in the choosing of representatives. The denial of effective participation to this latter group is largely a result of the imposition of compulsory preferencing, which should be abolished.
The resulting final rate of effective participation in the 2013 Senate elections was thus around 91.1% of enrolled voters. Together with the 2010 result (90.3%) the past two elections have been the lowest such results since the 1920s. This trend should be of concern and should prompt Australia’s Parliament to consider legislative reforms to protect and increase participation, and to refrain from any measures to put further downward pressure on participation (such as reducing the current strong system of maintenance of enrolment data).
The Senate is as a matter of legal form elected by a system of direct voting, as is desirable in principle and as is apparently required by the Australian Constitution.
However, the true substance of the current method of electing senators is much less satisfactory. The above-the-line voting option acts to makes the election of up to 2/3rds of all Senators effectively an indirect method of election. In practice, the Liberal Party (or LNP, or Coalition ticket) is empowered to appoint two senators in every state, and in some cases a third candidate. The Labor Party is everywhere guaranteed at least one such position, and in most (but recently not all) states a second such safe appointment; sometimes a third is a fairly safe bet. These senators are in reality answerable to their preselection panels, but not truly to the voters.
The Greens vote in Tasmania has been sufficiently strong in recent decades to achieve the same result, although to be fair this has in large part been due to the accomplishments and profile of the leading candidates.
The positions of the four territory senators are in substance appointed seats for the Liberal and Labor parties, although the ACT Liberal position has had the appearance of being more contestable at some elections. The territory situation is a result of the very small number of places – 2 seats in each case. If there were no above-the-line arrangement and a randomised ballot order, the voters would be able to exercise a much more effectively and discriminating choice between the candidates offered by the two major parties and all the other candidates.
The true substance of these arrangements, as opposed to their mere legal form, is contrary to the constitutional imperative that senators be directly elected. In substance, over half of all senators are not directly elected. When replacement senators filling casual vacancies are taken into account (these are not directly elected, but the Constitution permits this to happen), it is clear that the Senate as currently constituted is not truly a directly elected chamber.
The solution, as mentioned in other places in this submission, is to abandon the use not merely of group voting tickets, but ideally all forms of above-the-line voting.
As an STV voting system, in general the degree of choice in Senate elections is quite high.
However as with the impact on the directness of elections, above-the-line voting seriously detracts from true choice. The GVT system in current use diverts the process from being one of choice by the electors to an unpredictable result which cannot truly be described as a choice. It is in fact impossible to predict who will be ‘chosen’ as a result of the marking of preferences. The problem, and an appropriate solution, is outlined below.
Due to the federal settlement requiring an equal number of senators for each original state, inequality of enrolment between states is spectacularly high. Whilst STV systems normally achieve low levels of inequality of voter influence, the large variety in enrolments per seat means that this more important form of inequality is also very high in our Senate elections.
This problem is not going to get fixed while the current constitutional allocation of Senate seats among the States endures.
Voter equality of influence within each state and territory is very good, as this is a natural virtue of STV systems. Within each state, every senator is elected by an equal quota, making the influence of all electors equal vis-à-vis other electors in their state.
The level of actual representation of Australian electors in the Senate, as defined by whether each elector has an elected Senator related to their first preference vote, is almost 80% overall (taking two electoral cycles into account).
The results for the 8 elections in each of 2010 and 2013 and for Australia as a whole are shown below. Note that summing the two electoral cycles is difficult; for example Victorian DLP voters may be regarded as represented because they elected a senator in 2010, even though they failed to do so in 2013, and similarly with supporters of other minor parties who had diverse successes in 2013.
Proportion of electors represented in the Senate:
|Jurisdiction||proportion of electors represented
by the 40 Senators elected in –
|Australia overall||78.2%||71.2% *|
|Western Australia||78.5%||58.7% *|
(* Note: the original election of senators for Western Australia was ruled by the Court of Disputed Returns to have been invalidly conducted. The results used for this table are those for the substitute election held on 5 April 2014.)