WA Senate re-elections – what does it mean for voters?

| April 15, 2014

The Senate re-election in Western Australia has come and gone almost unnoticed by a seemingly disengaged public. Dominic O’Sullivan argues that to enhance the democratic credentials of our system we need to make sure that the act of voting is sufficiently clear for a vote to mean what the voter intends it to mean.

The circumstances of the Senate re-election in Western Australia might reasonably have attracted significant public disquiet. Legitimately cast votes ought to be counted and ballot papers need to be kept secure.

Yet, the Australian Electoral Commission’s concession that votes cast during the by-election on April 5 were placed in an insecure ballot box, has gone almost unnoticed by a public seemingly content with an inefficient and potentially undemocratic process.

The absence of the warranted public anxiety about electoral administration could suggest a broader public disengagement with politics, which might also explain the significant shifts away from the two major parties to the Greens and Palmer United Party which respectively recorded swings of 5% and 7% in their favour.

One often finds swings against governments in by-elections and the principal Opposition party is not always the main beneficiary, so caution about reading too much into these swings is important. However, the caveat is not sufficiently strong for the Government to avoid questioning its inability to sustain support based on its key policies of repealing the carbon and mining taxes, especially as the Prime Minister had styled the by-election a referendum on these measures.

The point of deeper long-term concern might be that the drop in support for the Government occurs while it contemplates significant public expenditure cuts to balance its Budget. People may be attracted to the idea of a balanced Budget as an abstract proposition, but once they contemplate what it means for their pensions, schools and hospitals, attitudes can change. The problem then becomes one of political communication, of convincing the electorate of the wisdom of its preferred policy positions. There are many examples of effective political leadership convincing people to support initially unpopular policies. However, for the ALP the election exposes vastly more serious structural and cultural problems that are increasingly distancing the party from the people.

The party’s failure to benefit from the protest vote away from the Government is unsurprising. The party’s ideas and values are secondary to the ambitions and power plays of the ‘faceless men’ who positioned Joe Bullock at the top of the Senate ticket, not as the fine candidate that Bill Shorten was forced to defend, but as a way of balancing factional interests and loyalties for reasons known only to the ‘faceless men’ themselves.

Any party that displaces a sitting senator, at the top of its ticket, with a candidate with a long history of indifference to the party itself exposes itself to ridicule. The ALP needs to confront factional power to restore ideas and electability, over factional connectedness, as the basis for selection as a parliamentary candidate. While there is strong support for this view within the ALP, there is also significant opposition from those whose personal power must necessarily diminish.

A significant change from the September poll in the by-election result is that the Australian Sports Party candidate originally elected has not held his position in spite of there being a small swing in his party’s favour. This aspect of the result exposes, once again, the mathematically complicated and not necessarily well understood system for the allocation of preferences.

So just as the system’s integrity depends on voters’ confidence in its ability to count each validly cast vote, one must also be sure that the act of voting is sufficiently clear and simple for a vote to mean what the voter intends it to mean. For those voting ‘above the line’, this means that they must understand the mathematical, as well as political, implications of the preference arrangements made by their first choice party.

It is doubtful that many voters have the skill or inclination to consider preference deals in this way which means, effectively, that voters’ capacity to express a genuinely informed opinion about who they want in the Senate is diminished. In other words a simpler voting system, such as one that abandons ‘above the line’ voting and allows voters to preferentially rank as few or as many candidates as they wish, may considerably enhance the systems’ democratic credentials.