Reforming the Senate voting system

| February 29, 2016

The Turnbull Government has proposed to overhaul the current Senate voting system. Is this a cynical power grab or a step towards more democratic transparency? Political scientist Dominic O’Sullivan makes the case for taking the reform even further.

Legislation to reform elections to the Senate has been variously described as disenfranchising micro-party voters, making the Senate less representative of the people or simply making the democratic process more transparent and stable. At stake is the question of whether, in Paul Keating’s phrase, the Senate ought to be more or less ‘unrepresentative swill’.

The political problem that the Government is trying to solve is that it cannot pass legislation without the support of the Senate crossbench comprising members elected on as little as 0.5% of the first preference vote; senators elected on the mathematical skills of ‘preference whisperers’ or party names, like Liberal Democrats, easily confused with the name of a larger established party, rather than elected by the informed preferences of voters.

The argument that the present electoral system makes the Senate more diverse and democratically more useful as a house of review is theoretically attractive until one considers that it is not the diversity that voters have consciously chosen. Senator Muir does, indeed, provide a voice to the ‘ordinary bloke’ and there is an argument that the Senate is a better place for that voice. However, the ‘ordinary bloke’ voted for somebody else; somebody less mathematically devious but, in many cases, markedly more popular.

Independent modelling suggests that Muir, Bob Day and Jackie Lambie would not have been elected had the proposed system been in place at the 2013 election. It is also likely that the presence of the Coalition logo, as is proposed, on the ballot paper would have ensured that no intending Liberal voter mistakenly cast a vote for the Liberal Democrats. There is no way of knowing whether this would have prevented David Leyonhelm’s election, but if he does retain his seat under the proposed system, one can be satisfied that he sits in Parliament with genuine democratic endorsement. Interestingly, the same modelling shows that the Green’s Sarah Hanson Young would not have been elected, although that party would have offset her loss elsewhere. Hanson Young, at least, can be presumed to have cast a vote of principle in favour of the reforms.

The political imperative to prevent the preference swapping that has required the Government to negotiate with a difficult crossbench is clear, but it is the broader issue of democratic credibility that is most important and that the proposals before Parliament go somewhere towards addressing. The abolition of ‘group tickets’ means that the voter does not have to undertake enquiries of the Australian Electoral Commission to find out where his or her party’s ‘faceless men’ have directed preferences. There will be no ‘backroom deals’ to obscure the full meaning of an ‘above the line’ vote. It is not the 3.3 million people who voted for minor parties that the proposed system disenfranchises; enfranchisement means the right to cast a vote of equal value, not the right to be assured that one’s candidate will win. It is, instead, the ‘faceless men’, the ‘preference whisperers’, who are disenfranchised. That is good for democracy.

However, true democratic transparency requires further reform. It requires the ability to cast, with ease, a fully informed ‘below the line’ vote. In New South Wales in 2013, 110 candidates appeared ‘below the line’. One had to rank each of these, in order of preference, to cast a valid vote. This will remain one’s only means of ordering one’s party’s candidates differently from that prescribed ‘above the line’ by the ‘faceless men’.

The difficulty that the electorate faces in imposing its own order of preference over a party’s is apparent when one considers that this last occurred in Tasmania in 1953. At that election, there were just 13 candidates to be ranked; a feasible although still difficult task. The reforms presently proposed would have been democratically enhanced if Optional Preferential Voting ‘below the line’ were added. Allowing voters to rank candidates from 1 to the number of vacancies (in the states 6 at a half Senate election and 12 at a double dissolution) would make it possible for voters to properly inform themselves of the merits of candidates and assess them against their own criteria, rather than a party’s. One would also be free to cast a first preference for a candidate of one party and a second preference for a candidate of another. Candidates with broad popular appeal would be favoured over those with appeal to the ‘faceless men’. Voters could, meaningfully, rank independent candidates amidst those of their preferred parties. The possibility that voters might cast informed votes for individual candidates would invite greater public, not just party, scrutiny of the individuals seeking election to the Senate. People would come to know who it is that represents them in the Senate and senators would know that they sat in Parliament with demonstrable public support.

Critics will, with some justification, argue that the Government is motivated by a cynical ‘power grab’, but there are also important points of democratic principle at issue and the Greens seemingly selfless support is evidence. What remains, is the case for democratic reform to ‘below the line’ voting.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    February 29, 2016 at 11:16 pm

    Senate election reforms

    Thank you Dominic for clearing a path through the political undergrowth to a place where it's easier to see the facts. I guess any proposed reforms this late in the electoral cycle are bound to attract charges of cynical manipulation from equally cynical commentators. If all of this results in something more like a house of review and less like a 'parties house' posing as a mythical 'states' house, at least the 'swill' be a little more representative and easier to digest.

  2. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    March 4, 2016 at 3:35 am

    Does it matter who wins?

    For me, the really worrying thing about the present state of Australian democracy is that whoever forms the next government will have attained power without disclosing their intentions and therefore will not have a genuine mandate. With the level of private debt being so high and with so much invested in unproductive assets, the candidates will want to stay well clear of offering anything like the leadership we need on taxation reform. Instead, we are already seeing all sorts of diversions, defence being a favourite along with tweaking the voting system, I suppose, to make sure it can't really change anything. Democracy has to be constantly nourished, but it is weakened when a nation would prefer to be duped rather than shoulder a burden that will otherwise pass to its children. If this is true, very few will 'like' it. Like it or not, we will have the government we deserve.